Browsing articles in "Reviews"
Jun
13

Song Review – “The Trailer Song” By Kacey Musgraves

June 13, 2014 - By Trigger  //  Reviews  //  20 Comments

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It was nothing short of inexplicable how ‘The Trailer Song” didn’t find its way onto Kacey Musgraves’ debut major label release. After all, the album was called Same Trailer, Different Park. The song was perfect for it. It fit right in with the other songs, without being too close for comfort with any of them. The whole trailer park motif is what Kacey’s been sporting all across the country on tour: rolling out Astro Turf for a stage rug and putting up little miniature-sized white picket fences around her drum riser. She plays “The Trailer Song” all the time, and whether you dig the tune or not, it’s hard not to admit it fits perfectly with the little kitschy niche she’s carved out for herself. And if she wasn’t going to put “The Trailer Song” on Same Trailer, where would it show up?

Hard to argue that “The Trailer Song” omission did Kacey too much damage however. She can sit back in her house in Nashville, maybe imbibing in a little respiratory refreshment, and stare up on her mantle to the Grammy and Academy of Country Music statuettes the album has won her. But as critically-successful as Same Trailer, Different Park has been, it still feels like a few opportunities were missed, including with “The Trailer Song”. And if we’re going to talk about the successes, let’s fairly point out that even with a Grammy and ACM sales bump, Same Trailer has still yet to crest that 500,000 plateau that puts a gold record on your wall. It will happen though, and despite its absence on the album “The Trailer Song” just might help.

When the 4th single from Same Trailer, Different Park “Keep It To Yourself” was released in March, I almost wanted to laugh. Decent song, but it never had a chance on country radio. It still eeked out a #32 showing on the airplay chart, and #40 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs, but like many of country music’s female performers, Kacey Musgraves has a singles problem. Even her game changing song “Merry Go ‘Round” never cracked the Top 10, despite an impressively-elongated stay on the charts.

Aside from “Merry Go ‘Round”, which still came out so much before Same Trailer that it didn’t aid album sales as much as it could have, I have second-guessed every single Kacey Musgraves single release. Like an angry computer tech, I’ve wanted to lean on the should of whoever is in charge of A&R at her label while condescendingly ordering “move!” so I can supplant myself at the helm. Sure, they delivered Kacey a few pretty important trophies, but otherwise it seems like Mercury Nashville is perfectly clueless of what to do with her, despite otherwise putting their machine totally behind her.

“The Trailer Song” is nothing special. But it shows off Kacey’s infectious and endearing wit, and her keen sense of perspective. And it’s catchy, and kitschy, and so very Kacey, and deliciously Country with a capital ‘C’ in both approach and sound. Is “The Trailer Song” a hit? No. But neither was “Merry Go ‘Round”, and it still became one because it was just weird enough to work.

Kacey Musgraves, who skipped her opportunity to perform at the ACM Awards in April because producers only wanted to give her 60 seconds, took the opportunity of a Jimmy Fallon slot to perform “The Trailer Song” to a national audience. The performance comes ahead of a big moment for Kacey, as she takes the stage with pop star Katy Perry for a CMT Crossroads performance ahead of a short tour with Katy this summer. Many country folks are up in arms over the pairing, but just appreciate they call the CMT program “Crossroads” for a reason, and cross genre collaborations are the entire point. And the Katy/Kacey pairing seems to be more playful than a paradigm shift for Kacey—the fact that she’s debuting arguably her most country song to date in “The Trailer Song” being solid evidence that this is the case.

Again, “The Trailer Song” is nothing special. But if given a chance on country radio, I tend to think it could actually compete if given a proper nudge.

1 1/2 of 2 guns up.

According to Musgraves, “The Trailer Song” will be made available on iTunes “soon.”

Jun
11

First Aid Kit’s “Stay Gold” Delivers a Soaring Performance

June 11, 2014 - By Trigger  //  Reviews  //  11 Comments

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Like the moan of the steel guitar or the cut of the banjo tone, there is just something about the precision and flow of sister harmonies that awaken something in the human spirit that is uncanny, and characteristic of the highest reaches of audio diversion. Considering the long and noble lineage of close sister harmonies, marked on its path by such noteworthy names as The Carter Family, The Kossoy Sisters, and up to today with The Quebe’s and The Secret Sisters, the Swedish sister pairing of Johanna and Klara Söderberg, traveling under the band name First Aid Kit, must certainly be considered right at the very top of esteemed acolytes of this storied discipline.

The occasion of their 3rd studio release called Stay Gold sees the duo rewarded the distinction of having a major label in Columbia Records behind their pursuits; something that is strange for a act with such weight, but not unexpected when you consider that in their home country of Sweden, they are the equivalent of pop stars. However First Aid Kit wields the English language with surprising expertise and purpose, and does so in a folk and roots style that is hauntingly classic and indicative of a time only ghosts can remember. The Söderberg sisters aren’t foreign, they are other worldly, and reach into the hearts of anyone who finds the beauty in folk and primitive country, no matter what borders define their homeland.

first-aid-kit-stay-goldStay Gold captures First Aid Kit fearlessly unburdening their fears, confiding in the listener very personal matters of self-doubt and worry that are exacerbated by a world of constant change, endless travel, and the inherent travails of navigating life as a young woman amongst prying eyes and directionless paths. The honesty in the songwriting, and the sentiment that bleeds over demarcation lines of gender or situation to find sympathetic ears with most who have the patience and disposition to listen make Stay Gold a songwriting feat before any discussion is broached about the music itself.

And when talking about the music, Johanna and Klara Söderberg put on a melody-crafting clinic, endowing Stay Gold with one rich, fulfilling composition after another full of soaring, frothy vocal exhibitions that run circles around the modern age’s garden variety mainstream singers. One of the reasons First Aid Kit can concoct such astounding melodies and match them so well with story is because their range and adeptness allows them a vocal pasture much wider that most have access to.

Story and melody is then complimented by orchestration that no matter what is happening, is so splendidly and tastefully set in the background, your attention is never stirred from where it should be centered: these two spellbinding sisters. Where their last album The Lion’s Roar looked to compliment their desire to travel as a 3-piece, First Aid Kit and producer Mike Mogis pull out all the stops for Stay Gold, with a full compliment of instrumentation including steel guitar and strings, and even a 13-piece orchestra that lays behind a virtual fog bank, floating in and out of the background, aiding these songs’ natural yearning to take to wing and deliver to the listener the higher reaches of what a musical experience can offer.

first-aid-kitAnd despite all of the ethereal shades of Stay Gold, it has some splendidly grounded and playful moments that keep it from taking itself too seriously; maybe even a little bit too grounded when the sisters unexpectedly sing about about how “shit gets fucked up” in the song “Master Pretender”, or yell in a shrill moment “STRAIGHT TO HELL!” on “Heaven Knows.” The “Waitress Song” throws you a fun little curve ball too, and despite its trope-like beginning, it slowly reveals the depth indicative of all First Aid Kit material.

Concerns about Stay Gold would be that at times, whether the fault of writing or cadence, this sister duo will try to try to include too many words in a small space. It caught your ear at a spot on the title track of their last album, and it does here in the first song “My Silver Lining” with “I don’t know if I’m scared of dying, but I’m scared of living too fast, too slow.” The beat and background music of a couple of the songs, including “Master Pretender” seem to unsheathe the moody pall normally cast over their music, to an almost Paul Simon-like tribal joy that while not poor by any measure, seems a slight shade inappropriate. Also the song “Heaven Knows”, though probably being the most country-style song on the album, seemed slightly too judgmental in the lyricism.

This is a folk project first, but listeners who will be able to map the parallels between The Carter Family, The Louvin Brothers, and other important country bands will find great joy in this album.

With Stay Gold, First Aid Kit doesn’t just squeeze some Neosporin and slap a band-aid on the wound of bad music, they offer a holistic tincture that heals prolonged ailments and others you never knew you had. Consider it right beside the other high water marks so far in 2014.

Two guns up!

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Preview & Purchase Tracks from Stay Gold.

Jun
8

Zoe Muth’s “World of Strangers” Should Make Her a Familiar Name

June 8, 2014 - By Trigger  //  Reviews  //  8 Comments

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Take a Pacific Northwest songwriting gem and refine her with the finest of care by some of Austin, TX’s best master craftsmen, and the result is the 3rd and defining studio album from Seattle-based songbird Zoe Muth called World of Strangers. Backed by her touring band The Lost High Rollers on her two previous releases, Zoe ratcheted up the game with the new album by retaining the services of well-respected producer, engineer, and bass player George Reiff, known as one of the masterminds behind successful projects from The Band of Heathens, Ray Wylie Hubbard, and many more. This pairing proves prosperous on World of Strangers, delivering an album that is both genuine to Muth’s creative spark, yet enhanced by the the respectful and well-versed ear of someone who knows how to endear those original expressions to an appetent audience.

zoe-muth-003They call Zoe Muth the “Emmylou Harris of Seattle”. Then maybe Emmylou Harris is the Zoe Muth of the rest of the world. Either way, Emmylou is fair company for comparison to Muth as a way to express the measures of country, folk, and Americana Muth purposes for her music, and for the positive, and sometimes haunting way the music resonates with an audience. Ranging from downright alcohol-soaked honky-tonk to spatial spiderwebs of subtly and string sections, Zoe Muth and World of Strangers dazzle with range and adeptness at capturing the mood present at the genesis of a song.

Joining Zoe Muth and George Reiff in this journey were other notable Austin names such as Brad Rice (Sun Volt, others) and Bruce Robison, and whatever the songs of World of Strangers called for, it was procured in the manner of piano, strings, or accordion, giving the album incredible spice beyond the savory nature of Muth’s unembellished compositions.

Many of these new songs had been in my head for a long time, and I needed a change of scenery and sound to let them find their way out,” says Zoe about the album. “This was a whole new studio experience for me, more experimental. We agreed from the start that we wanted something different, more ethereal, but George took these songs in a direction I wasn’t expecting. It worked so well because we have so many common influences. It was really exciting, how the musicians would jump from one idea to another without hesitation. We were able to capture all the emotion you hear in the songs because the band could get them down in just a few takes. I knew this was why I had come to Austin.”

zoe-muth-world-of-strangersLike the faces of children, each song on World of Strangers has something hard not to be endeared to. The faraway cry of the steel guitar on the opening number “A Little Piece of History”, the empathetic character at the heart of “Mama Needs A Margarita”, the aching in “Annabelle”, the timelessness of “Waltz of the Wayward Wind”, and the story so easy to relate to in “What Did You Come Back Here For?”

World of Strangers does not grab you by the gruff and make you listen, it’s a creeper that burrows itself into your bones. It’s not a flood that comes crashing in with waves, it’s the one that rises unexpectedly until you’re knee deep. A similar action accompanies Zoe’s voice—not flashy or even necessarily distinguishing, but slowly infectious and warm. The high artistry may be too aloof in moments for the red meat crowd, but World of Strangers still has something for anyone who labels themselves a roots fan.

No offense to Zoe Muth’s touring band that does a valiant job backing her up on a nightly basis, but the decision to go big with World of Strangers resulted in an album that should make her a familiar name throughout the roots world.

Two guns up.

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Purchase World of Strangers from Zoe Muth

Preview & Purchase Tracks on Amazon

Jun
4

Saving Country Music’s 2014 Anti-CMT Awards LIVE Blog

June 4, 2014 - By Trigger  //  Reviews  //  128 Comments

cmt-awardsWelcome ladies and gentlemen to the Saving Country Music Official ANTI-CMT Awards LIVE blog sponsored by nobody.

CMT and Viacom are by far the biggest perpetrators of cultural erosion in the country music community, and their annual fan-voted awards are a laughable attempt to showcase talent and bestow accolades that in the end are meaningless (No Trig, tell us how you really feel). But since a lot of eyeballs will be trained on this 3rd-rate event and things might transpire of interest to the overall country music world, let’s watch along and share our criticisms, observations, and if need be, praise.

As the night goes on I will be posting my observations in timeline form, and as always, you’re encouraged to pipe up in the comments section below. Also below you can find the nominees, and a list of what to expect as far as performers and presenters.

Now, let’s get small!


CMT Music Award Winners:

  • Video of the YearCarrie Underwood, ‘See You Again’
  • Male Video of the YearBlake Shelton, ‘Doin’ What She Likes’
  • Female Video of the YearMiranda Lambert, ‘Automatic’
  • Group Video of the YearThe Band Perry, ‘Done’
  • Duo Video of the YearFlorida Georgia Line, ”Round Here’
  • Breakthrough Video of the YearCassadee Pope, ‘Wasting All These Tears’
  • Collaborative Video of the YearFlorida Georgia Line and Luke Bryan, ‘This Is How We Roll’
  • CMT Performance of the YearLuke Bryan and Lionel Richie, ‘Oh No/All Night Long’

 

10:01 - Yeah, so I’m not exactly how I should rate what just happened and what sort of sliding scale to use, but I have to say the opening number after ZZ Top, with Florida Georgia Line, Luke Bryan, and Jason Derulo was the biggest mess/most disappointing thing I have ever seen transpire that could ever in any way be associated with country music. Positively awful and jarring. Also was completely classless to end the thing 20 minutes early so they could promote their “Party Down South” show to the country music masses: pretty much the whole point of tonight’s show. You could palpably feel the awkwardness when the host said “Goodnight!” and it was 20 minutes ’till the end of the hour.

It was cool to see the Alan Jackson tribute and that it was a complete song instead of an abbreviated montage, and that they gave him an award.

CMT has been going in the worng direction for years, but there is clearly a feeling that “Party Down South” has completely lowered the brow of programming there across all of their shows, including the CMT Awards. The toilet humor was non stop, and at times, completely awkward. I still don’t understand Bobby Bones’ joke/not joke about Jake Owne being the hottest woman there. Waiting for an explanation. So yeah, it was the CMT Awards. Let’s recap the winners and go home.

9:50 - Alright folks, I will try to compose some final thoughts and wrap this thing up. THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU  to everyone that stopped by, read, watched, participated, retweeted, commented, etc. etc. We made it through … together.

9:46 - So seriously, CMT just rope a doped America into watching a bunch of “Party Down South” bullshit by ending their show early. What a load of garbage.

9:45 -

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9:44 -

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9:42 - Wait a second, so they’re going to end this thing 20 minutes early to roll a “Party Down South” infomercial? Are you fucking kidding me?

9:40  - Carrie Underwood wins the CMT Award for Video of the Year for  “See You Again”.

9:38 - Nothing says country like Gwar-ish mohawks and wind machines.

9:37 - Welp, Miranda Lambert and Carrie Underwood got the amount of mascara right this time, but this song still blows.

9:35 - Now some guy I don’t know (probably a TV guy) is talking about wanting a mustache ride. What’s up with the homo-errotic joke series this evening?

9:34 - Watching a tort commercial about vaginal mesh (???), and it’s still better than most of the presentations tonight.

9:29 - Back on Little Big Town, I know they have some big proponents out there, but every chance they have to get my attention they lay an egg. The stupid motorbotin’ “Pontoon” song and now “Day Drinking” are just about worthless.

9:25 - The CMT Award winner for Duo Video of the Year goes to Florida Georgia Line for “Round Here”. And water is wet.

9:22 - “Boys ‘Round Here” Blake Shelton? I thought we were done with this garbage.

9:21 - Oh look, Little Big Town used that colored chalk shit just like Florida Georgia Line did in their “Cruise” video. Good luck getting that shit out of you maxillary sinuses. “Day Drinking” was just all about co-opting elements from other successful bits.

9:19 - The bullshit floor tom drum ensemble bit is the scourge of American popular music in 2014. Leave that bullshit to The Blue Man Group, Stomp, and Imagine Dragons.

9:17 - Why is Little Big Town dressed like their wife just told them they have to take engagement pictures?

9:12 - Before you say “It can’t get any worse”, appreciate we still have the banshee yawp of Carrie Underwood & Miranda Lambert’s “Somethin’ Bad.” Get ready to smear your mascara.

9:09 - Miranda Lambert wins the CMT Award for Female Video of the Year for “Automatic”. Not a bad song or video. Well deserved.

9:06 - Okay so we’ve heard the songs “Hey Bartender,” “Drunk On A Plane”, “Bottoms Up”, and Little Big Town are supposed to debut a song called “Day Drinking.” Do we see a pattern here kids?

9:03 - 

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9:01 - Oh great, and here comes “The Move”

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8:59 - One more hour people, we can do this! I believe in you! Maybe we’ll hear a steel guitar! (probably not)

8:53 - Never seen more label-anointed/manufactured country stars in the history of the genre than Dan + Shay. Six months ago they were filling Ventis in a Starbucks in Franklin. And by the way fellas, only Joey + Rory are approved to use mathematics symbols in their name, so step off.

8:50 - Brantley Gilbert sounds worse than Tyler Farr. What the hell’s going on here? Were they huffing gasoline in the parking lot, or did they give each other strep? Terrible.

8:49 - “Are there any drinkers out there?” says Brantley Gilbert whose also used his sobriety for marketing. I respect his sobriety, but you can’t have it both ways Brantley.

8:48 - Did Steve Austin really just call a song “brick ass”?  ???

8:44 - Man last year, the side stage had some cool acts. They were backed by The Mavericks, Ashley Monroe and a bunch of other cool people were featured there. This year it’s just lame rapping bro hams throwing down clichés and poorly-executed and awkward urban gesticulations.

8:41 - Cole Swindell is more white than the wind driven snow. Stop rapping you non-threatening suburban-bred white people!

8:40  - The CMT Award for Collaborative Video of the Year goes to Florida Georgia Line featuring Luke Bryan for “This Is How We Roll”.

8:38 - Sara Evans and Vince Neal from Mötley Crüe make a good pairing, why?

8:36 - All across the country, parents have one hand ready to cover their kids eyes when these “sexy flight attendants” start straight up stripping.

8:35 - Thought Dierks last album was pretty good, but I think “Drunk On A Plane” is one of the worst tracks, though I guess a lot of folks love it.

8:33 - This host is an ass whip.

8:28 - Sorry folks, apparently it is “Lzzy” not “Lizzie” Hale from Halestrom who played with Eric Church earlier. In the heat of battle here.

8:25 - Jennifer Nettles is the worst oversinger in country music. What is the point of this song and performance? Why are the CMT Awards promoting John Legend and his song “All Of Me”? You want to include collaborations with artists from other genres, I get it, you’re trying to draw eyeballs. But at least do a country song.

8:23 - Didn’t recognize LeAnn Rimes without her shoving her thong in a tabloid’s camera.

8:22 - Never thought I would hear a Latin conga drum dance beat on a country award show. Actually, yes I did.

8:20 - The winner for the shamelessly self-promoting “CMT Performance of the Year” award goes to Luke Bryan & Lionel Richie for “Oh No / All Night Long”.

8:18 - Tom Arnold does a dumb bit where he pretends to be a Jason Aldean hologram. I’d pay money to see Rosanne Barr comes out of the wings and throw a big sloppy sandwich at his ass.

8:10 - Appreciate Eric Church giving big ups to Brandy Clark, Dwight Yoakam, and Halestrom on his tour, and for giving Lzzy from Halestrom a big opportunity here. Remember when he also gave a big opportunity on an awards show to Valerie June? http://www.savingcountrymusic.com/valerie-june-stuns-the-acm-awards-in-duet-with-eric-church

But man, “That’s Damn Rock & Roll” is a terrible song. Lzzy did her job though.

8:08 - That is Lzzy Hale from Halestrom performing with Eric Church. They are on tour together, along with Brandy Clark.

8:07 - Huh. VERY interesting song choice by Eric Church, singing “That’s Damn Rock & Roll”, which starts with an anti-establishment rant.

8:06 - “I got it! His song is called “Beachin’” so will have everyone tossing beach balls!” (high fives ensue).

8:03 - Oh, and here comes Jake Owen wearing capri pants. Like shooting fish in a barrel people.

8:02 - Who was that dude in the pastel hot shorts? You should NEVER have to see the pasty inner thigh of another male.

8:00 - Still think Keith Urban’s new haircut looks like a chupacabra, but it’s good to see a sedated, nuanced performance amidst all this madness. Was good to see ZZ Top again too.

7:57 - Alan Jackson should have just dropped the mic and flashed the double bird, but unlike many of these pop country pop tarts, he actually has class.

7:55 - “Screw this dog and pony show, let’s go get a steak,” says Alan Jackson as he casually throws his CMT “Impact Award” in a dumpster and drives away.

7:53 - Country music should take out a restraining order on Tyler Farr’s creepy, girl-stalking ass, forbidding him from coming within 100 years of the genre.

7:52 - Wow, Tyler Farr sounds like absolute shit. Did he swallow a razor blade? No sarcasm intended, somebody get a nurse.

7:50 - Blake Shelton wins the CMT Award for Best Male Video, completely killing any and all buzz from the Alan Jackson tribute.

7:48 - I don’t watch enough television to know who the hell half of these hosts/presenters are.

7:45 - Alan Jackson is presented with the first CMT “Impact Award” by Carrie Underwood. “That song never sounded better,” he says Alan about the Kacey Musgraves and Lee Ann Womack’s performance.

7:43 - Lee Ann Womack, Kacey Musgraves, singing Alan Jackson, backed by Kacey Musgraves’ much underrated band. And not some hurried 30-second song montage. This is great!

7:41 – Really good to see the Alan Jackson tribute during the first hour. Usually they bury these things next to last.

7:40 - Yes! Relief. The Alan Jackson tribute!

7:32 - The CMT Award for Breakthrough Video of the Year goes to Cassadee Pope for “Wasting All These Tears”. She promptly puts on an act like she gives a shit.

7:30 - Puberty jokes aside, Hunter Hayes truly is one of the refreshing male alternatives to bro-country, but his songs just do nothing for me.

7:29 - Bobby Bones posted this earlier:

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7:26 - Bobby Bones just said that Jake Owen was the hottest woman there tonight.

7:25 - Trust me folks, we’re gonna get a snoot full of “Party Down South” promotion this evening.

7:24 - That first segment was so scattered, I didn’t even have time to compose a funny/thoughtful/coherent thought.

7:20 - Yeah so the “Nationwide Stage” will be where artists get 30 seconds to deliver their most recognizable hook before getting cut off by a hard cut to the Cialis commercial. Ask your doctor.

7:17 - The Band Perry wins the Group Video of the Year—a meaningless award that will nobody will remember 30 minutes from now and won’t even make it into the fine print of their Wikipedia  page.

7:16 - Kristen Bell making moose knuckle jokes speaks to the “Party Down South”-ification of CMT that has happened over the last year, saying “Screw the family friendly nature of country music.”

7:14 - I’ll give the opening this: They have made one reference after another to the male dominance in country music, speaking to just how far that phenomenon has made it in the country music zeitgeist.

7:12 - Did Luke Bryan just make a veiled homo-erotic joke about himself coming out of the elevator? What the hell is going on?

7:11 - Ten minutes in, and clearly NOTHING is going to last longer than 30 seconds to cater to the American short attention span. I feel like my head’s in a blender.

7:10 - Don’t know who any of the people in this opening “host” skit, rendering every joke completely flat. Oh wait, is that Chris Arnold? Dude’s lost some weight.

7:08 - Sorry folks, should have warned this was going to be an expletive-laden live blog. Didn’t know it would be that way until I tuned into that garbage.

7:07 - Jason Derulo, you want me to talk dirty to you? How about this: Stay the fuck out of country music. Please and thank you.

7:06 - Five minutes into the COUNTRY Music Television Awards, and we’ve heard every single genre on the planet but country and klezmer.

7:04 - What the fuck is going on?

7:01 - Holy shite! It’s the little band from Texas, ZZ Top! This might be the most country stuff gets all night. Not country, but if you don’t like Billy Gibbons, you can kiss my ass!

7:00 - Here we go!

6:55 - The only two things I’m looking forward to tonight: 1) Alan Jackson tribute with Kacey Musgraves & Lee Ann Womack. 2) The commercial breaks.


What To Expect (Intel from around the web):

  • There will be an Alan Jackson tribute performed by Kacey Musgraves and Lee Ann Womack.
  • Actress Kristen Bell will host, and the “case” from CMT’s “Party Down South”, as well as DJ Bobby Bones are expected to make appearances.
  • Lady Antebellum will be performing “Bartender” (apparently, with lost of lasers).
  • Jake Owen will perform “Beachin’”.
  • Lady Antebellum will debut their song “Day Drinking”.
  • Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert will perform their duet “Somethin’ Bad”.
  • Dierks Bentley will perform “Drunk On A Plane”.
  • Luke Bryan, Florida Georgia Line, and pop star Jason Derulo will be performing together, likely “This Is How We Roll”.
  • Jennifer Nettles (Sugarland) will be performing the song “All of Me” with Hunter Hayes and John Legend.
  • Lzzy Hale from Halestrom will be performing with Eric Church.
  • Brantley Gilbert will perform “Bottom’s Up”.
  • Blake Shelton, will also perform.
  • Dan + Shay and other smaller performers will be performing on a side stage.
  • Presenters include Steve Austin, Beth Behrs, Brooklyn Decker, James Van Der Beek, Kate Walsh, Cassadee Pope, Rascal Flatts, LeAnn Rimes, Blake Shelton, Bobby Bones, Carrie Underwood, the cast of “Party Down South”, Cody Alan, the Eli Young Band, Jason Aldean, Justin Moore, Keith Urban, Kip Moore, Lionel Richie, Sara Evans, The Band Perry, Vince Neil, Tom Arnold, Lindsey Stirling, Eric Decker and Jessie James Decker.

2014 CMT Video Award Nominees (for those who care):

VIDEO OF THE YEAR

  • Blake Shelton featuring Pistol Annies and Friends – “Boys ‘Round Here”
  • Carrie Underwood – “See You Again”
  • Florida Georgia Line featuring Luke Bryan – “This Is How We Roll”
  • Luke Bryan – “That’s My Kind of Night”
  • Miranda Lambert – “Automatic”
  • Tim McGraw with Taylor Swift and Keith Urban – “Highway Don’t Care”

MALE VIDEO OF THE YEAR

  • Blake Shelton – “Doin’ What She Likes”
  • Eric Church – “Give Me Back My Hometown”
  • Hunter Hayes – “I Want Crazy”
  • Jason Aldean – “Night Train”
  • Luke Bryan – “Crash My Party”
  • Randy Houser – “Runnin’ Outta Moonlight”

FEMALE VIDEO OF THE YEAR

  • Carrie Underwood – “See You Again”
  • Cassadee Pope – “Wasting All These Tears”
  • Kacey Musgraves – “Follow Your Arrow”
  • Miranda Lambert – “Automatic”
  • Sheryl Crow – “Easy”
  • Taylor Swift – “Red”

GROUP VIDEO OF THE YEAR

  • Eli Young Band – “Drunk Last Night”
  • Lady Antebellum – “Compass”
  • Little Big Town – “Your Side of the Bed”
  • Rascal Flatts – “Rewind”
  • The Band Perry – “DONE.”
  •  Zac Brown Band – “Sweet Annie”

DUO VIDEO OF THE YEAR

  • Dan + Shay – “19 You + Me”
  • Florida Georgia Line – “Round Here”
  • Florida Georgia Line – “Stay”
  • Thompson Square – “Everything I Shouldn’t Be Thinking About”

BREAKTHROUGH VIDEO OF THE YEAR

  • Brett Eldredge – “Beat of the Music”
  • Cassadee Pope – “Wasting All These Tears”
  • Cole Swindell – “Chillin’ It”
  • David Nail – “Whatever She’s Got”
  • Thomas Rhett – “It Goes Like This”
  • Tyler Farr – “Redneck Crazy”

COLLABORATIVE VIDEO OF THE YEAR

  • Blake Shelton featuring Pistol Annies and Friends – “Boys ’Round Here”
  • Florida Georgia Line featuring Luke Bryan – “This Is How We Roll”
  • Florida Georgia Line featuring Nelly – “Cruise (Remix)”
  • Hunter Hayes featuring Jason Mraz – “Everybody’s Got Somebody but Me”
  • Keith Urban with Miranda Lambert – “We Were Us”
  • Tim McGraw with Taylor Swift and Keith Urban – “Highway Don’t Care”

CMT PERFORMANCE OF THE YEAR

  • Dierks Bentley and OneRepublic – “Counting Stars”
  • Jake Owen – “Days Of Gold”
  • Lady Antebellum and Stevie Nicks – “Rhiannon”
  • Luke Bryan and Lionel Richie – “Oh No/All Night Long”
  • The Band Perry and Fall Out Boy – “My Songs Know What You Did in the Dark”
  • Willie Nelson and Neil Young – “Long May You Run”
Jun
4

Jake Owen’s “Beachin’” (Review & Semi-Rant)

June 4, 2014 - By Trigger  //  Reviews  //  71 Comments

jake-owen-beachinJake Owen, my man. You know I love you for calling out country that’s all about “fuckin’ cups and Bacardi and stuff like that” and giving my man Tony Martinez a big break on your “Days of Gold” tour. But “Beachin’”? Really?

What’s going on here folks is now that Kenny Chesney has been put out to pasture by the country music powers that be, somebody has to step up and fill the void for swaying, stupid, sand between the toes sonnets of suburban escapism for 40-something women with skin Cancer on their shoulders to hold their Corona Lights high in the air to and scream “Whoooo!” while breathing in the smoke of their Home Depot citronella tiki torches. Kenny Chesney ruled this territory for years after kissing the rings of the Godfather Jimmy Buffett who then bestowed to Chesney the scepter of shitty beach songs which Chesney presided over for a good ten years. Now Jake Owen and others are stepping up to fill this void of what apparently is a must-have staple of the American country music radio dial.

As much as hearing even the opening stanza of a corporate country beach song can make a distinguishing music listener pucker harder than trying to down a cheap Mexican beer without lime or salt, Jake Owen and “Beachin’” makes this exercise even more excruciating by featuring him rapping, yes, rapping the verses … yo yo. And to this end, Owen delivers what has to be the worst white boy rap performance that has ever been proffered to human beings for public consumption that isn’t meant to be taken as ironic. I guess his voice is supposed to be all low and sexy, but the ultra-monotone and lifeless pitch makess Charlie Brown’s teacher sound like Loretta Lynn.

jake-owen-beachin-2And of course as one could anticipate, this song doesn’t really go anywhere. Is the term “Beachin’” supposed to be a lyrical hook that delivers some sort of payoff? Because it’s about as unfulfilling as Daytona Beach when you’re dreaming of Cancún. How did this thing crack the Top 5 on the country charts? About the only redeeming feature of “Beachin’” is the butt of the leading lady in the video. And guess who’s the producing mastermind behind “Beachin’”? Joey Moi, the architect of Nickelback and Florida Georgia Line.

I still don’t know what happened to Jake Owen’s other single “Days Of Gold”. It was pretty much terrible too, but at least it moved, had a rhythm, and was written by The Cadillac Three. There was something redeemable there beyond it being obvious bro-country pap, but somehow that one stalled at #19 on Billboard and was abandoned by his label, and this drivel is the one to become Jake’s big hit.

Come on Jake, leave the rapping to Kanye, the beach to The Beach Boys, and practice what you preach about delivering more substance to radio.

Two guns down.

Possible conclusions of the above video:

1) All a wet dream.

2) Girl gets mangled in a horrible car accident, resulting in an ultra-sappy love song.

3) Jake’s label doesn’t pony up to produce the next video because of budget cuts from the parent company.

Jun
3

Album Review – Miranda Lambert’s “Platinum”

June 3, 2014 - By Trigger  //  Reviews  //  47 Comments

miranda-lambert-platinumAs sad as it is to turn on the radio and hear what country music has become, it is even more sad to zoom out in your mind to a broader perspective and understand that what we’re hearing in mainstream country now is what will define country music for a generation: laundry list songs perpetrated by pretty boy entertainers, pock marked by rap phrases and EDM elements. Right next to the post-war rise of the Grand Ole Opry and Hank Williams, the bluegrass age, Countrypolitan, the Outlaw era, and the Class of ’89 will be this most unfortunate epoch of country music’s storied history that will have to be explained to future generations as either a dark age, or where the story of true country music ends.

The exception though, the counterpoint will be the females of the genre that did their best to offer an alternative, and leading them all in prominence is The Pink Pistol, Miranda Lambert. With four consecutive CMA’s for Female Vocalist under her belt and counting, she is the feminine face of country music for this current era. Few have been able to nip at the heels of the bros on the charts and in tour stats like Miranda, save for Taylor Swift who has become a consensus for the generation’s crossover success instead of a true, country-centric entertainer.

Miranda Lambert’s career arc up to this point sketched out a gradual softening of her edgy, “light shit on fire in scorn” style that won her praise for her candidness, strength, and countrified nature earlier in her career. This trend tends to be the destiny of most any artist if they want to continue to ascend the country ladder instead of stall, and by Miranda’s last album, the aptly-titled Four The Record, she had all but abandoned much of the rough-hewn style that was her original signature. Her new record Platinum, though maybe not violent or vengeful, certainly is edgy, and may not be ill-equipped to carry the marker of being called a retrenching of her early style, at least in ardent nature of some of the subject matter.

It seems when modern country artists attain the highest reaches of the genre, albums tend to not carry any underlying themes, but are simply aggregation points of singles and album cuts. And since “synergies” must be optimized for releasing singles and for tour considerations, the track lists are stretched out to 16 or so songs to compensate for the multi-year gaps in releases. This makes commenting on the albums as a whole as if they are an attempt to summarize an artist’s life or their current creative expression in a given period, instead of just a collection of songs meant to fulfill expectations of targeted demographics, a little bit silly.

On cue, Platinum really doesn’t have any root or theme. You may hope for one, or think that the one word title might allude to delving into some exploration of the human condition, sort of like what Taylor Swift did with Red—using the color as a jumping off point to expound on the virility of human emotion. Instead Miranda’s “Platinum” title track is simply about the hue of a hairstyle, and the color she hopes this album achieves from the RIAA—superfluous, materialistic, shallow things that don’t really hold any deeper meaning. Unfortunately, there’s no “Over You”.

Along with blond hair, which is referenced on this album numerous times, alcohol is mentioned in most of the tracks, including what may look like the title of a gospel-inspired song, “Another Sunday In The South”. Even before this album was released, some wondered how so much salty language ended up on the track list, including “Old Shit” and “Gravity Is A Bitch”, which for all intents and purposes, constitute two of the four “traditional” country tracks the project boasts. Yeah, doubtful you’ll be sending either of these to the old folks back home for their listening pleasure. The 3rd traditional country track, the Western Swing tune “All That’s Left” recorded with The Time Jumpers, is done so straight-laced, you might as well be listening to Asleep At The Wheel. But it is thrown into the middle of the track list almost like a token gesture to the red meat country crowd, like a penance for the album’s ill language and some of its sonic misdeeds.

Though you may think the song “Smokin’ & Drinkin’” that Miranda performs with Little Big Town would be one of Platinum‘s hellraisers, it actually comes across as the country equivalent of yacht rock, with softened edges and an 80′s adult contemporary string bed. When Miranda’s vocal track starts, bolstered by stacked harmonies from the Little Big Town team indicative of Bee Gee’s-style “How Deep Is Your Love” range proximity, it was a laugh out loud moment for this listener, exacting an animatronic effect upon Miranda’s voice fit for a Tron soundtrack.

“Little Red Wagon” is all attitude and immature histrionics, though I’m sure some females will get a kick out of it. Similar to the Carrie Underwood collaboration “Somethin’ Bad” (read full review), it feels like a feudal attempt to joust with bro-country by bringing the level of discourse down to their banal latitudes.

“Priscilla” finds one of Platinum‘s few personal moments for Miranda, but like “Bathroom Sink” which devolves into Miranda channeling Lita Ford, the song feels more like a vehicle to vent and reference mundane everyday moods and artifacts without any real story or message being conveyed beyond complaint.

“Babies Making Babies” is Miranda’s version of the Kacey Musgraves small town disillusion thread, and though Lambert’s overly-inflected drawl tends to hold this song back, it is deftly written and fairly country, making for one of the album’s better tracks. “Holding Onto You” gives Platinum one of its few understated moments; refreshingly sedated with an inviting, Motown feel, while “Hard Staying Sober” is the album’s “three chords and the truth” moment with bold steel guitar and Miranda’s sweet vocal spot being found where her alluring Southern drawl is present, but not hyped. By the time the song goes double time, you’re checking to see if anyone’s looking and cutting a rug in your living room.

Along with “Hard Staying Sober”, the album’s first single “Automatic” is another rich takeaway (read full review), reminiscent in a more warm and positive way despite the by-gone forlornness of the theme, with the tasteful chords pulling at your emotions.

Platinum commits some sins that are unfortunate, but not at all unexpected from the genre’s top female artist, but then atones for them with other worthy offerings until overall the scales are tipped slightly to the good. You’re never going to get the bold strike, the heavily-thematic sonic or lyrical opus you want from an artist like this, which would be the only way to truly engage the adverse forces in country music and attempt to wrangle control from their grips. So you just hope to get more good than bad, and that is what Platinum delivers.

Big Takeaway Tracks:

  • “Automatic”
  • “Hard Staying Sober”
  • “All That’s Left (with The Time Jumpers)”

Big Throwaway Tracks:

  • “Little Red Wagon”
  • “Smokin’ & Drinkin’ (with Little Big Town)”
  • Somethin’ Bad About To Happen (with Carrie Underwood)
  • “Platinum”

1 1/4 of 2 guns up.

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Purchase Platinum from Amazon

The Good:

The Bad:

Jun
2

Before They Sucked: Big Country Stars at the Start

June 2, 2014 - By Trigger  //  Reviews  //  118 Comments
Brantley Gilbert, before he went douche.

Brantley Gilbert, before he went douche.

Many of mainstream country’s big stars came to Nashville with the best of intentions. They had a sincere love of country music, a belly full of talent, and big hopes to make music their way and ascend the country music ladder with their integrity still in tact….

…and then the Music Row machine did it’s worst.

When you look back at some of the early songs, early albums, and even the early image of some of country’s biggest current stars, it can stimulate downright culture shock. Of course styles change naturally over time, but many of these artists came from small towns and had simple dreams. But the problem with money and fame is that you can always have more of it, and next thing you know, they become shells of their original selves.

Below are some illustrations, not necessarily listening suggestions, but examples of some of the dramatic changes we have seen in some of country music’s biggest artists since their start.


Blake Shelton – “Austin”

With long hair hanging down past his shoulders and a cowboy hat, Blake Shelton and his first single and first #1 hit “Austin” from 2001 seems light years away from the rapped verses and hip hop beat of “Boys ‘Round Here.” Not an exceptional song, but one that has a sincere story, steel guitar, and shows that Blake Shelton did have a soul once upon a time and didn’t mind singing a song for the “Old Farts & Jackasses.”


Luke Bryan – “I’ll Stay Me”

With his baseball cap facing the right way and a goofy smile, Luke Bryan from the small town of Leesburg, GA  made his way to Nashville, and after penning big songs for Travis Tritt and Billy Currington, signed with Capitol Records Nashville in 2007 and released an album called I’ll Stay Me. Yes, let’s not let the irony of that title escape us. Bryan wrote or co-wrote all of the songs on the album, compared to his latest album Crash My Party that has only two co-writes from Bryan in the entire 13 tracks. Though there is certainly the early leanings toward a laundry list style of lyricism on “I’ll Stay Me,” it also has a lot of sincerity and a pretty authentic country flavor.


Jason Aldean – “Amarillo Sky”

Before Jason Aldean became the mainstream champion for country rap with “Dirt Road Anthem” and became one of the Godfathers of laundry list country with its caricaturist portrayals of rural life, he put out a song called “Amarillo Sky” on his debut, self-titled album in 2005, releasing it as a single in 2006. Instead of clichés about dirt roads, beer, & trucks that mark Aldean’s current offerings, “Amarillo Sky” tells a pretty authentic story about the struggle of American farmers, while the video featuring real sons of farmers does it one better. The song was written in part by Big & Rich.


Jerrod Niemann – “Good Ride Cowboy”

Jerrod Niemann has become the poster boy for the gentrification of country music with his EDM-laced radio superhits like “Drink To That All Night”, but can you believe that he once co-penned a tribute to Chris LeDoux cut by Garth Brooks called “Good Ride Cowboy”? Neimann actually had Garth record three of his co-writes, and had Jamey Johnson and Neal McCory record his songs as well. “Good Ride Cowboy” wound up at #3 on the Billboard charts in 2005. Below Niemann can be seen sporting an actual cowboy hat instead of his signature club-hopping fedora. Where did you go wrong Jerrod?


Brantley Gilbert – “What’s Left of a Small Town”

When Brantley Gilbert started out in country music, you wouldn’t even be able to recognize him compared to today. Brantley Gilbert ver. 2014 is all attitude with his ball cap pulled down over his eyes, singing country rap songs in a complete vacuum of self-awareness, but as many long-time Gilbert fans can attest, back in the day he wrote and sang some very sincere country songs, while being known to pay homage to the roots by playing many country classics. His first album released in October of 2009 called Modern Day Prodigal Son gave many hints to the bro-country king Brantley would become, but it also had a few really sincere songs, including one called “What’s Left of a Small Town”.


Sugarland – “Tennessee”

Remember when Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles actually had a Southern accent, Kristian Bush had a cowboy hat instead of an outfit pattered off the leprechaun on the Lucky Charms box, and they had a third member that looked like a 40-something female volleyball coach? Yes, it was 2004, and light years away from “Stuck Like Glue.” Oh how I would have loved to be a fly on the wall during that uncomfortable meeting at Mercury Records when some suit demanded Jennifer lose her twang, and the band lose their third wheel.


 Florida Georgia Line

….oops, they started bad and stayed there.

Jun
1

John Fullbright Sets a High Bar with New “Songs” Album

June 1, 2014 - By Trigger  //  Reviews  //  12 Comments

john-fullbrightPhoto: Vicki Farmer

If you see someone roll up in a rig with Oklahoma license plates claiming to be a songwriter, you’d be smart to pay a little bit closer attention these days. From country artists like Evan Felker and The Turnpike Troubadours, to more Americana stuff from artists like John Moreland and Parker Milsap, Oklahoma is spitting out songwriters at a rate that has the rest of the country on high alert and working double hard to match their output. Something in the water, something in the soil, or something in the lineage of a state that birthed Woody Guthrie, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Jason Boland, and many more—whatever the chemistry is, Oklahoma is hatching one landmark songwriter after another. And not one songwriter in Oklahoma or anywhere else may loom as large at the moment as the fresh-faced farm boy originally from Bearden, Oklahoma named John Fullbright.

As the lives of most songwriters go, John Fullbright has lived a charmed one for sure. His debut studio release, 2012′s From The Ground Up found its way to the very highest reaches of industry accolades when it was nominated for Best Americana Album at the 55th Grammy Awards, and he seemed to be quickly and inexplicably, but deservedly anointed as a songwriting golden boy right out of the gate. This is great for a songwriter, right? Get all the momentum behind your back, get the industry recognizing your contributions, and get where you can put food on the table plying your craft and begin to set yourself up on a path to comfort.

Or is this a favorable destiny for a songwriter? The romantic notion of what makes great songwriting is a scene of poverty and self-loathing, depression and sometimes addiction; someone who can’t seem to come to grips with the world they live in, letting their pain express itself in soul-stirring poetry that discerning ears yearn for. They must endure, so we can enjoy, and to that end many songwriters seem to perpetually sew conundrums for themselves and makes shambles of their personal lives so they can find the next vein of inspiration; the whole Van Gogh cutting off his ear archetype.

john-fullbright-songsJohn Fullbright however doesn’t adhere to these notions in his new album simply entitled Songs, he challenges them. You could tell from Fullbright’s first album that his writing style works more from method instead of madness. It wasn’t as much the wit or the rawness that gave his writing an indelible hold on the listener, it was his ability to weave stories and deliver insight in both a poetic, and a refreshingly-understated way.

Songs finds John Fullbright talking shop about songwriting rather candidly and deftly, questioning the entire notion of where inspiration comes from, and toying with the rules and methodology that govern the craft. It starts off with the first song “Happy”, catching Fullbright wondering “Every time I try to write a song, it seems to start where we left off … And tell me what’s so bad about happy?” In the center of the album is the brilliant “Write A Song”, where Fullbright is able to enact the same effect of setting up two mirrors on opposing walls where you see infinite reflections, only he does it with words while still conveying a deep life moral. “Write A Song” song captures Fullbright at the apex of his gifts, and may be marked down as one of the best song contributions of the year. And then he ends the album with “Very First Time,” proclaiming, “I feel alright, for the very first time”; tying in with the first song “Happy”, and giving this album a cohesive theme and thread whose overall result is the shattering of the notion that songwriting and suffering are inseparable.

For a 26-year-old who must feel the pressure of fulfilling the expectations his first album set, Fullbright is positively fearless in Songs. And in between the first, middle and last song of this album that sketch the moral arc of his intended message, he entertains with wistful mentions of love, and extended bouts of storytelling, built just as much upon piano and organ tone as it is guitar, and with generally sparse, but always ample and appropriate musical arrangements that achieve the goal of highlighting the words and little else.

This is a songwriter’s album, and songwriters and people who study the craft and have patient, attentive ears will be singing the praises of this album for the rest of the year and beyond. The general population though may find it too broody and melancholic, and may find Fullbright’s voice nondescript, while still recognizing the craft illustrated and the mood set. There’s moments in this album where you can’t help thinking of Tom Waits, especially when keys are the centerpiece, or Mickey Newbury with all the extended spatial moments, and even Bob Dylan with all the self-aware and referential elements in the writing. Songs and John Fullbright are worthy of being referred to in this company, and not just from the writing itself, but from creating songs that unearth fountains of emotion like few others from the marriage of words and song.

With Songs, John Fullbright sets the standard by which all other songwriters will be measured by in 2014.

Two guns up.

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Purchase Songs From John Fullbright

Preview & Purchase Tracks on Amazon

May
30

Dolly Parton’s Song “Home” Should Be on the Radio

May 30, 2014 - By Trigger  //  Reviews  //  18 Comments

dollypartonpic

Yeah, we say it all the time. “Seriously, this song should be on the radio!”

But seriously, this song should be on the radio.

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Ever since Dolly Parton announced what became her 42nd album called Blue Smoke, there’s been a sense this is not just some perfunctory release from an older artist, but something that Dolly really wanted to do right; not necessarily a retrenching, but something that special care has been taken towards to let the album live its natural life and not be limited by a lack of attention or love. She planned a world tour out in advance to run parallel with this album, and has seemed to pull out all the stops in making sure Blue Smoke is not just another lazy release from a legacy artist.

dolly-parton-blue-smokeCritics have been smiling on Blue Smoke left and right for finding a sensible balance between traditional and contemporary, earthy and entertaining. And that pragmatic, yet still indelibly Dolly approach is what endears the song “Home” to what is becoming a growing crowd.

Released as Blue Smoke‘s first live video, “Home” starts off with that deep, underpinned beat that while may not generated by a drum machine, is ambiguous enough to be mistaken as such. Complimented by an overlayed banjo track, these are the calling cards in 2014 for the intro to any radio-relevant country song. Rock-toned guitar then rolls in, announcing that this will not be one of the album’s traditional numbers, but a solidly country pop arrangement that aspires for a wide audience.

Nevertheless, “Home” reveals sincerity, and an authentic sentiment in the writing, told in a story very true to Dolly, however well-trodden it has been in her 60-year career. The structure of the song rises and swoons, with unintuitive, yet inviting turns, while Dolly’s voice is flawless, hitting the high notes as clean as when she was harmonizing with Porter Wagoner, with her little heartfelt warble as present as ever in the softer moments.

“Home” is certainly not a critical cut from Blue Smoke, but one that for the life of me I can’t find one reason to think it couldn’t live quite nicely on today’s country radio. The video is silly, but it’s also sincerely Dolly. There is a lot here that is very hard not to love. It may not be a country version of “Kokomo” that champions some historic popular music chart re-entry, but Sony should pony up the promo funds and see if they can’t get Dolly to crack the Top 20. Because if they did, she would.

Written by Dolly and Kent Wells.

1 1/2 of 2 guns up.

May
28

Jamie Lynn Spears in “The Journey” EP

May 28, 2014 - By Trigger  //  Reviews  //  16 Comments

jamie-lynn-spears“So, Brittney’s little sister wants to be a country music star after getting booted off Nickelodeon ’cause she got knocked up at sixteen.”

This is the conclusion most high-nosed country music snobs can come to upon hearing that Jamie Lynn Spears has bent her back to the pursuit of a country music career, without even having to listen to a peep of her music. At first notion, the premise of Jamie Lynn Country seems so flimsy and transparent, it’s darn near a forgone conclusion that it can be nothing more than bubble gum and choreography.

Then when Jamie released her first single, the co-penned “How Could I Want More” in November 2013, many high-nosed music snobs had to spread mustard on their presumptive words and eat them. Not that “How Could I Want More” was Song of the Year material or anything, but it made one pause and consider for a moment that for all we knew, Jamie Lynn Spears could come out as one of these critical country music females like Kacey Musgraves or Ashley Monroe, and impress with weighty composition and artistic merit.

Or maybe releasing “How Could I Want More” ahead of an album was simply a way to diffuse critics, and creep onto the right side of the country music gatekeepers. After hearing Jamie Lynn’s full EP The Journey, the latter may not be a bad theory.

READ: Jamie Lynn Spears Surprises w/ “How Could I Want More”

“How Could I Want More” certainly defines the The Journey‘s critical apex. Otherwise, the album starts off with two very commercially-oriented and formulaic offerings. As true as the story behind “Shotgun Wedding” might be for teen mom Spears, aside from a few moments of lyrical wit, the EDM-enhanced, banjo-backed intro and the predictable chorus make any enjoyment about as lasting as the joy in most forced marriages. “Run” is also fleshed out with oft-trodden cadences and sonic tropes; the somewhat interesting chorus progression notwithstanding.

“Mandolin Summer Sun” is all rhythm, and the hook and melody feel very forced. While the last song, the sedated “Big Bad World”, finally offers some of the same intimacy and vulnerability we hear in “How Could I Want More”, and Spears finally allows the listener to connect with her through story.

Really, there may not be enough here with The Journey to truly make any hard and fast determination about Jamie Lynn Spears the country singer, not just because we’re only given five tracks for insight, but also from a feeling of ambiguity or lack of direction in this release that leaves more questions than answers. Does Jamie Lynn Spears want to be known as a singer like Carrie Underwood? A songwriter like Taylor Swift or Kacey Musgraves? Is it all about the entertainment factor? What is her overall style or message? The Journey doesn’t really go very far in answering any of these queries. This could be on purpose, using this EP like a weather balloon simply to gauge public sentiment to see if the younger Spears is worthy of being picked up by a major label (The Journey was released independently on “Sweet Jamie Music”), or what style or songs will work for her moving forward.

Spears herself has said she’s “trying to figure out what the exact sound” is she wants to go with, and some of the material on The Journey sounds downright dated, like female pop country from the mid to late 00′s. Reading up on the album, you find out “Shotgun Wedding” was likely written in 2008 or 2009, giving it a good half decade to grow stale.

Even in 2014 though, half baked and dated material still bests most of what is coming from mainstream country males, and it’s only fair to grade The Journey among its peers. “How Could I Want More” is pretty good, “Big Bad World” is not half bad, and the other three tracks are pretty forgettable, but not offensive.

End Diagnosis: Inconclusive. Like with most EPs.

One Gun Up. One Gun Down.

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Preview & Purchase Tracks from The Journey

May
27

Live Review – Red Fest 2014

May 27, 2014 - By Trigger  //  Reviews  //  12 Comments

red-fest-2014-stage

Redneck comedian Jeff Foxworthy wanted to start his own festival, and that was the germination of the idea that bloomed into the inaugural Red Fest held Memorial Day weekend just south and east of Austin, TX at the Circuit of the Americas speedway—the only F1 racetrack in the United States. The sprawling complex built in 2012 includes a 3.4-mile, 20-turn racetrack with multiple grandstands and buildings, including a 14,000-capacity music amphitheater and 251-foot observation tower. This became the scene for the multi-faceted festival catering to country music-minded people of mostly the mainstream perspective, but with quite a few independent and up-and-coming bands and artists thrown into the lineup for good measure.

As new huge corporate festivals come online all across the country, Jeff Foxworthy’s idea was to make Red Fest more of a culturally-immersive experience to separate himself from the competition. Along with himself, he brought on Larry The Cable Guy, and the Duck Dynasty folks to give Red Fest a comedic wrinkle. Then strewn out across nine different areas surrounding the speedway, you could find a varied array of different activities, including an archery range, go-karts and racing simulators, dodgeball and volleyball courts, horseshoes and cornhole pits, a fully-complimented carnival midway, mechanical bulls, a military village housing charity booths and boot campaigns, and that’s just getting started. Even the most dedicated patron would have needed all three days of Red Fest to see and experience it all.

Leroy Virgil of Hellbound Glory

Leroy Virgil of Hellbound Glory in the Smoke of the Natty Light Stage

As for the music, the Red Fest lineup was built on good intentions. Big names like Florida Georgia Line, Tim McGraw, Kellie Pickler, and Lynyrd Skynyrd were billed alongside lesser-known bands from the local and national landscape like Hellbound Glory, The Whiskey Sisters, and Bri Bagwell. Think of it like the model the Stagecoach Festival in California has been using for the last few years: instead of segregating independent and mainstream music, integrating it. Yet at its heart, Red Fest was still very much a mainstream, corporate festival, built to cull every last dollar from super-consumer fans who pride themselves in working hard and spending hard.

Though asking $10 for a CD these days is apparently considered too much by many, the market can bear $4.00 for a bottle of water, $7.00 for a domestic beer, and $20.00 for parking, despite the Red Fest grounds being amongst vast tracks of Texas land with absolutely no premium on space. Ticket prices and booking fees, not album sales, are now what keeps the music industry’s coffers flush, so the entire festival experience is an exercise in wringing the consumer out of as much money as possible. Luckily, Red Fest patrons were blessed with pretty good weather over the weekend, so copious amounts egregiously-priced libations were not absolutely necessary (though many elected to over-hydrate anyway), and despite a few minor intermittent showers causing some to scurry for cover, clouds and cooling breezes kept temperatures very reasonable compared to how hot or stormy central Texas can be at the end of May.

When Red Fest let 6,000 free tickets go to military service members, it wasn’t just a sincere token of good will, it was a sign that the fest was going undersold, and they needed to get butts through the gates. Aside from the upper lawn of the amphitheater bowl, and the entire amphitheater area when the headliners like Tim McGraw and Florida Georgia Line took the stage, the crowd all weekend felt a little thin. The grounds either needed to be more compact, or have more people to fill them. The 1/4 mile trek from the heart of the fest to the other two stages was a little bit too much for your average patron to endure. So generally speaking, they didn’t explore the extremities of the fest unless it was for one of its extra-curricular features, or a band that they really wanted to see and already knew about, like Parmalee, Colt Ford, or Texas country star Granger Smith. Meanwhile worthy acts like The Derailers and The Whiskey Sisters from Austin, or out-of-towners like Hellbound Glory and Sundy Best played to thin crowds made up mostly of people who already knew about them, rendering the idea of turning new fans on to a different sound somewhat unfulfilled.

red-fest-2014-towerNonetheless, some great music transpired at Red Fest, and not just for those that made an attempt to seek it out on the smaller stages. Kellie Pickler put on a great set, reprising many of her most popular songs, and playing some classics, including Loretta’s “You Ain’t Woman Enough (To Take My Man)” and “White Lightning” for the large audience. The two-piece Sundy Best on the Natty Light side stage performed an extended medley of 80′s and 90′s pop tunes that included Fresh Price, the song “O.P.P.”, and The Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way”. The rest of the set showcased their own songwriting, vacillating between fun-loving and sincere. Sundy Best needs to make up their mind if they want to be a party band, or a singer-songwriter showcase, but they’re hard not to like. Granger Smith proved that even the Texas country scene is capable of producing laundry list schock, despite how much of a guilty pleasure Earl Dibbles Jr. might be.

The Whiskey Sisters on the smallest Redfest Showcase stage converted from an Airstream trailer showed why they’re one of the best bands in Austin to see live, and Hellbound Glory put on a rowdy set, almost as if they were looking to define the extreme of the proceedings. Compare this with Florida Georgia Line, who when they took the main stage to close the fest out Sunday Night, felt like a force of homogenizing nature. Right before their set, rap music blared over the mains, with legions of self-proclaimed rednecks swinging their hands in urban gesticulations and singing along. Then the duo walked out to Imagine Dragons’ “Radioactive”, illustrating the blurred genre lines of the whole experience. Love them or hate them, Florida Georgia Line has without question captured (or capitulated) the current mainstream sound, and it’s infectiousness is so undeniable, it is a downright scary notion to stomach for the critical minority.

The commitment by Jeff Foxworthy to make Red Fest an annual event seems unwavering, despite it being somewhat foreign to the indigenous music culture in and around Austin, TX. Many patrons likely drove in from the San Antonio and Houston areas to the fest, and you saw more Aggie maroon than UT orange per capita throughout the weekend. The branding of the event called it “A New Memorial Day Tradition,” and they already are getting ready to do pre-sales for next year. Despite the first year hiccups of having the site too spread out, and prices for things more tailored to the upper-crust F1 racing crowd as opposed to a redneck festival, it went off without a hitch. Hopefully next year Red Fest continues to book bands worthy of a wider audience, and also does a better job of getting that audience in front of them.

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Red Fest Amphitheater:

Red Fest Amphitheater

Kellie Pickler on the Main Stage

The Whiskey Sisters:

The Whiskey Sisters

Sundy Best:

Sundy Best

Hellbound Glory:

Hellbound Glory

May
25

Review – Ags Connolly’s “How About Now”

May 25, 2014 - By Trigger  //  Reviews  //  9 Comments

No matter how much they attempt to exile the spirit of true country music, no matter how much it is scattered to the four winds, or denied shelter by the gatekeepers of mainstream music, it will always find a home and a harbor in the hearts of real country fans, no matter who they are, or where they dwell. It may be people from the American South, born and raised in the same dirt that the sound originated from. It may be in Westerners, who carried the sound with them when they sought better fortunes. It could be Northerners, or rural dwellers across the country who find camaraderie with the sentiment of a country song. Or it could even be non-Americans who spend their whole lives feeling lost and looking for their true identity before finding a home in the songs of the South.

So that leads us across the pond, to Europe, and specifically the British Isles, where so many of the sounds that went into creating the foundations of old time and bluegrass, and eventually country music originated. As many of the embattled artists still making real country music will tell you, Europe has become a bastion of support from the number of people who still believe in the traditional modes of American country music compared to the numbers of people in the States per capita. One such person is Oxforshire’s Ags Connolly, a country music fan turned singing and songwriting aficionado.

ags-connolly-how-about-nowAs he says in the song “I Saw James Hand”, “If I didn’t know I was country, then that made up my mind. When I saw James Hand, in London first time,” Such a sentiment speaks to the warmth that can fill the soul when you find something you connect with so humanly—something we’ve all experienced at some point, even when that something has been sitting under our noses our entire lives.

After studying and listening to country music for years, including a few forays over to the United States to see James Hand on his home soil, and even share the stage with Dale Watson at Austin’s famed Continental Club, Ags drew up the confidence to release his debut album How About Now. Unlike some of his British and European country-playing brethren, Ags doesn’t attempt to hide his foreign lineage, or ape country from a foreign perspective. Instead of talking about bars and beers, he talks about pubs and pints. And this type of “singing what you know about” approach makes this album something that is not just country, but that’s authentic in its perspective and approach.

Ags Connolly also doesn’t try to affectate the Southern drawl, but you can tell he’s studied styles and cadences of the country sound, and re-creates them while still staying very much within himself. Same can be said for the music on How About Now—very tasteful and selective, with strong country elements in places, while still trying to strike a unique sound for Ags alone, including a guitar solo on the song “She Doesn’t Need Anyone Anymore” that speaks to they study of not just traditional country, but how to instill progressive elements into it with taste.

How About Now gets better with every song, starting off with a protest ballad called “When Country Was Proud”. On a few of the first songs, Connolly feels like he may be stretching to convey his premise, but then with songs like “Get Out Of My Mind”, “I Hoped She Wouldn’t Be Here”, and the last two tracks “She Doesn’t Need Anyone Anymore and “How About Now”, he really finds his country music groove of telling a story that everyone has lived and can relate to, though few have been able to communicate in song before.

There may still be a confidence and an awareness that Ags needs to find within himself to have his music reach its full breadth, but How About Now is better than a good start. This album also may find special appeal to other British natives and Europeans from the familiarity of perspective, enhanced by a well-versed country experience (and so it’s been said, Connolly has adopted Dale Watson’s post-country term “Ameripolitan” for his music).

Drop all the qualifiers, discounts, and rhetoric about origin, Ags Connolly deserves to be considered right beside his Stateside counterparts as one of the carriers of the country music holy ghost whose carefully-crafted songs can speak to the human heart universally, irrespective of borders.

1 3/4 of 2 guns up.

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Listen to How About Now from Ags Connolly

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May
23

Review – Hank Williams in “The Garden Spot Programs”

May 23, 2014 - By Trigger  //  Reviews  //  7 Comments

hank-williams

25 tracks unearthed from four live studio performances recorded in Nashville in 1950 come together to constitute a new edition to the complete work of the Drifting Cowboy, Hank Williams. The performances, released by Omnivore Records and originally sponsored by Naughton Farms, a mail-order plant nursery in Waxahachie, TX, capture Hank Williams in his purest form with his Drifting Cowboy Band, and similar to previous releases of Mother’s Best Flour-sponsored programming, also include banter in between the songs that is preserved for the listener’s enjoyment, and for further insight into Hank Williams beyond the music.

The Garden Spot Programs, 1950 is a quality release with recordings that come across with sharpness and surprising clarity for sessions that were just recently unearthed and went unheard and undiscovered for nearly 64 years. Since they were recorded in the same studio as many of Hank’s other iconic recordings, there’s no appreciable drop in quality from his more formal studio releases, despite the live aspects of the recordings. Once the recordings were made, they were transferred to 16-inch transcription disks and sent to radio stations across the country for broadcast. Many of the disks were misplaced or discarded, but a set discovered at KSIB in Creston, Iowa led to this Garden Spot Programs release.

hank-williams-garden-spot-programsWilliams offers new renditions of some of his most iconic tunes, including “Lovesick Blues” (twice), “Mansion On The Hill”, and “I Don’t Care (If Tomorrow Never Comes)” along with some other songs that Hank introduces as “novelty” like “Mind Your Own Business” and “I’ll Be A Bachelor ‘Till I Die”. As Hank Williams biographer and co-producer of this project Colin Escott points out, on many of the recordings, Hank’s regular steel player Don Helms isn’t present, and Cousin Jody is playing steel instead, adding a unique wrinkle to these recordings from the originals.

Though there are 25 tracks here, there may not be as many full songs here, and this album may not last as long as some listeners would like. The four shows the recordings are taken from transpire in ordered segments that start with an opening Garden Spot jingle, are bisected by a 30 to 60-second fiddle tune, and end with a Garden Spot closing spoken by Hank that leads into a “Oh! Susanna” minute-long instrumental. When these recurring segments are taken out, this leaves only twelve complete songs as part of this recording, but these twelves songs are as strong as any Hank Williams ever released, and the jingles and fiddle tunes hold their own appeal in helping to take you back in time and envision the studio scene that these recordings capture.

The album ends with the 3-minute Naughton Farms ad—the whole reason for these performances—that pitches to listeners the mail-order offer of “15 thrilling rose bushes mountain collected in assorted colors of reds, pinks, whites, along with two hydrangeas, one tulip tree, and two lovely gardenia plants, for the amazingly low price of $1.98.” Now that’s a good deal. The by-gone innocence in all the extra material on this album gives it the warmth of setting, really putting you back in that 1950′s frame of mind.

Though nothing in this new collection feels like an essential piece of the Hank Williams puzzle, it is a welcome new offering that will be well-received by Hank Williams fans and once again helps us remember and continue the legacy of arguably the most important man in country music.

1 3/4 of 2 guns up.

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Purchase The Garden Spot Programs from Omnivore Records

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May
18

Review – Miranda Lambert & Carrie Underwood’s “Somethin’ Bad”

May 18, 2014 - By Trigger  //  Reviews  //  109 Comments

carrie-underwood-miranda-lambert-something-bad“I got a real good feeling something bad’s about to happen” is the lyrical hook of Miranda Lambert and Carrie Underwood’s much-anticipated duet “Something Bad” which is set to appear on Miranda’s new album Platinum, and was just released as a single. And when the duo debuted the song on the 2014 Billboard Music Awards Sunday night, something bad did happen.

Much talk and hand-wringing had preceded this collaboration in the weeks after it was announced, and in the weeks leading up to its debut on the Billboard Awards. But the performance had many fans of both artists wondering just what the hell they were seeing and hearing transpire on the MGM Stage in Las Vegas. Ahead of the performance, some were calling this collaboration historic, legendary, and overdue. The idea was that the current dominant style of music known as “bro-country” had so corrupted country music’s airwaves and relegated virtually all country female performers to a lower class, it needed an antidote, a power-packed one-two punch of country music female stardom that could show the boys that the women of country mean business. But instead we got flailing hair, screamed lyrics, and a loss of melody that made the song and performance smack of some 80′s era mashup between Aerosmith and Joan Jett.

Miranda Lambert & Carrie Underwood to Battle Bro-Country with “Something Bad”

In lieu of the duo battling bro-country with the brawn of their sheer star talent and doing what they do best, which is wowing audiences with singing prowess and powerful lyricism, Carrie and Miranda stole plays straight out of the bro-country coloring book and descended into vapid and story-less rhythmic superfluousness complete with unnecessary gesticulations and other showy nonsense that illustrated how amateurish and under-practiced they are at being really bad.

miranda-lamber-carrie-underwood-001“Something Bad” is buoyed by a fun-enough and catchy “wo-ow-ow” chant that garnered some sympathy clapping from the Billboard Awards crowd and will certainly earn the studio version a few fans, but the machine-gun, pseudo-rapped Aerosmith-esque verses were anemic from their lack of substantive material. The song has a goodly amount of awkward, empty space in the middle of it for some reason, and even if all the elegance hadn’t been drained from the vocals, the key chosen and the style of the song in no way complimented either lady’s natural strengths, and made the tone and character of their performances virtually interchangeable.

With “Something Bad” it is a scenario where two big sums equal something much less than their individual parts. In fact the song offers the scary prospect that in the face of continued low-performing results from country music’s women, they will be forced to not only cross genres like is done in this rock-like and rap-like mono-genre mess, but also cross chromosome lines and start having to ape the boy’s adolescent behavior to buy attention. “Something Bad” felt like when the sweet girl next door tries to play the slut to land her beau, and smears the lipstick and stumbles in her high heels. Sure, Carrie and Miranda looked ravishing, but it was hiding a really, really bad hair day.

The studio version reveals a little more production value, but just about the same level of disappointment.

You’ll get ‘em next time girls. But this one was more rough than a peanut patty goober side up.

1 3/4 of 2 guns down.

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May
18

Surprise Artist Karen Jonas Talks New Album “Oklahoma Lottery”

May 18, 2014 - By Trigger  //  Reviews  //  10 Comments

Karen-Jonas-Oklahoma-Lottery

Fredericksburg, Virginia’s Karen Jonas surprised everyone in March when she released one of the year’s most unexpected, yet critically-acclaimed albums called Oklahoma Lottery. The album showed tremendous musical wisdom for a freshman effort, and scored high marks for songwriting, musicianship, arrangement, singing and guitar playing by Jonas. It’s so rare that such a talent comes out of nowhere, I had to reach out Karen and discover more about her story.

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It’s pretty rare that a musician with such adeptness and resonance comes out of nowhere like you have. What is your musical lineage? Where did Karen Jonas singer-songwriter come from?

I’ve been singing forever. Even as a little kid there’s silly little videos of me singing. And I sang in choruses in school and things but they never really resonated with me. I liked to do it, but I was never really good at it. I was never that confident about it. And then my dad played guitar just around the house. When I was about 16 he played me a Joni Mitchell record—Miles of Aisles actually. I remember him very specifically putting it on the record player and I thought, “That’s what I want to do.” I do really come from more of a folk background than a country background. My parents didn’t listen to country music, and I didn’t know much about it until just a few years ago. But buy the time I was 16 I started playing and I started writing, and I never really took guitar lessons which is why I’ve developed sort of a strange style of playing I guess. I played at bars and coffee shops and things sporadically. And then I started a band called The Parlor Soldiers with Alex Culbreth, and he played country music and knew a lot about country music from old country to modern Americana. I learned a lot from that and it really changed my style. We only played together for a year, maybe two, and started writing together. And since then I’ve done a lot of my own exploration of the genre, especially the old stuff. And now I’ve got my own band and am playing my own songs.

You’re a local musician very much embedded in your local music community, yet you appear to have a drive to get your music out to a wider audience. Where does that drive come from?

It seems like the next natural step. I love playing music, and I could do it every night and be really happy. And there’s only so many places. Fredericksburg, VA got a great little scene, but it’s very little, and you can only play so many nights a week. I wanted to make a record. I wanted to have a way to give people what I do so they could hear it somewhere where they could listen to the words. In bars and things sometimes it’s hard to hear everything. I like words, and I like writing words. I love being based in Fredericksburg. I love the people here and the venues, but you can only play here so often.

There appears to be two primary veins of your writing style: One that relies on past people and events in history, and another that comes across as very personal. How personal are your personal stories, and how much does your personal narrative play into your historical storytelling?

You’re exactly right, I do tend to write in two ways, and a lot of it is the process. Sometimes I sit down on a Saturday afternoon with nothing really on my mind and I think, “I’m going to write a song about Bonnie & Clyde.” I’m not in any particular state-of-mind, it’s just a Saturday afternoon writing a song. That’s how I wrote “Suicide Sal”. I read Wikipedia. I’m a big Wikipedia nerd. There’s probably all sorts of terrible errors there. But I’ll read an article or I’ll go online and look at pictures. I have an English degree, so I like to research and read and write. I’ll take notes, and then I’ll sit down and write a song. But sometimes I’m just in a real foul mood and something unfortunate has happened and I’m full of feelings and things, and I sit down and I write some really meaningful, personal song about myself. I think with the story songs, I’m able to relate enough, and put myself in them enough, and I get really involved. If I’m thinking about a Bonnie & Clyde song or the Dust Bowl or whatever it is, I can spend a whole afternoon looking at the pictures and reading Bonnie’s poems. I was reading The Grapes of Wrath for the “Oklahoma Lottery” song, and really picturing, and wondering what it was like, and what those people were feeling. But the personal songs are just really personal feelings of emotion written in as artistic of a way as possible.

How did your guitar playing technique emerge?

It is a little different. I used to just fingerpick, and then I wanted to make a little more noise. I wanted to fill up the space a little better. And at some point I went from fingerpicking to what seemed natural to me which was sort of a thumb strum thing that I do. It’s pretty percussive. It eats up my fingers. I’ve bled in most of my guitars a good bit. I’ve toughened up though. I don’t really bleed in my guitars anymore. I pick a lot of alternating bass notes with my thumb, and then I strum down with my fingers. I’m sure there’s other people who do something like that, but it’s not normal. The guitarist I play with Tim Bray, he’s a guitar teacher and he had a student come to one of our shows. The student was probably twelve, and he watched the show and afterwards he went up and said, “Mr. Tim, do you yell at her for playing like that?” because it’s really against a lot of rules. But it all works for me, and I enjoy the sound that I get from it. It was never something I did on purpose.

How much of a sacrifice is it to make music a priority in your life?

I’ve never ever thought of it like that. I don’t know what else I would do if I didn’t play music. I’d be miserable. To me, whatever time and money and energy I put into it is so natural to me it just makes sense. It’s just what I do. It’s not something that I consciously plan out very well. Tim Bray and I book the shows and I organized the making of the album, but writing and singing all the time is just what I do. It’s part of who I am. I want to play for a lot of people. I want to play bigger rooms than what I am now. I want to make my next album. I’m already ready to make another album. I’m not going to yet, I promise. But I will as soon as it makes sense to. I have a ton of songs I want to have available for people to hear, and I’m working on a ton of new songs. I’m excited about what I’ve learned from making this first album.

I started making this album way too long ago. I think I started talking about it two years ago. I had scheduled a date to go into the studio and I just wanted to record live solo acoustic versions of some of these song, and a bunch of other songs that fell off the album at some point. And I woke up that morning with laryngitis, and I never went in and did it, and the whole thing got muddled. Then I ended up finding a couple of musicians to play with, and I started playing with them. And I started talking to a guy to was going to help me record an album that he was going to produce. We recorded scratch tracks for that in January of last year, but everything was going very slow. It was sweet of them to help me and it got me to where I am now, and we started adding drum tracks and things, and by the time September rolled around I was impatient at best. And artistic decisions we had made six months ago didn’t even make sense to me anymore. I’d started playing with a new group by then, and this album that was going to be produced in a basement somewhere just never happened, and I had to bow out of it gracefully and say “Thank you for your time.” But it wasn’t getting done, and I had new songs that I wanted, and I had new ways I was hearing things.

So what we ended up doing is in a matter of a couple of weeks, we lined up with the new band I was playing with to go record Oklahoma Lottery live at a studio. I brought in this band that I hadn’t really even played with much, and we went in two days in December and recorded the album the way it is. The only thing we added was the lap steel and electric piano later. So it’s sort of a winding road and it’s funny how things work out, not in ways you expect them, but sometimes the unexpected things lead you to where you are going.

Really I’m just excited about the future of my music, and the future of playing music. I feel like I have a lot to offer, and I’m really excited that people like this album. I didn’t really expect anyone outside of Fredericksburg to care too much. So I’m really grateful. I thank people all the time, and I’m so grateful to people who’ve listened to it and cared about it, and cared about the songs. A lot of the songs are so personal, that it’s almost scary to have them out there for people to hear, and to judge and think about. But I’m so grateful to anyone who’s taken the time to care about it, and listened to what I had to say.

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Purchase Oklahoma Lottery from Karen Jonas

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May
17

Matt Woods Goes Beyond ‘Deadman’s Blues’ w/ New Album

May 17, 2014 - By Trigger  //  Reviews  //  19 Comments

matt-woods

Back in October of 2013, Knoxville, Tennessee’s Matt Woods came out of the wild blue yonder and blew us all away when he released a single and video for what has since become his landmark song “Deadman’s Blues”. Few have ever landed such an emotional wallop to the gut like Matt Woods did with that one offering. It went on to be named Saving Country Music’s Song of the Year in 2013, and received similar praise from other attentive periodicals.

Matt Woods did what every songwriter yearns to do whenever they put pen to paper: make a deep, emotional connection with the rest of the world. But “Deadman’s Blues” was just one song. Would he, could he match it? After “Deadman’s Blues”, I almost didn’t want to know. I hate to admit it, but even though Matt Woods had been a productive artist and released multiple albums before the 3-song vinyl that “Deadman’s Blues” was a part of, I’d never partaken in his music any deeper. And for me, it seemed better to allow that song and Matt Woods to loom large for as long as possible, and not risk eroding the magic of “Deadman’s Blues” by discovering diminishing returns from rifling through his back catalog, whether that would have been the result or not. The song and video have been such a handy go-to when looking for a douse of inspiration in the middle of a given day, no sense in testing fate. So I’d wait for a more deeper Matt Woods exploration once his new album hit with “Deadman’s Blues” as the anchor.

And while we’re exercising full disclosure, I was honestly a little concerned that maybe Matt Woods wouldn’t resonate beyond the one song. I thought he may not be country enough for some reason. Matt Woods has a lot of Austin Lucas and Two Cow Garage in him—two excellent outfits, but two that trend more rock, with country and roots mixed in. And like Lucas and Two Cow, Woods works in realism more so than poetry, wrenching at your heart with real-life stories that subordinate subtly and symbolism. Would a deeper listen to Matt Woods reveal a style that was emotionally-driven roots rock with steel guitar dubbed over that I could only partially get behind?

matt-woods-with-love-from-brushy-mountainAnd that brings us to the matter of his brand new album With Love From Brushy Mountain. It only took two songs in to show how silly my concerns were that this would not be country enough, and the entire album worked to reveal that when it comes to Matt Woods and “Deadman’s Blues”, that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Brushy Mountain is as complete of a country album as you will find, with excellent songwriting throughout, a great sound that is country at heart, but with sprouts of rock & roll that endow the project with spice and originality, and there’s something for every mood here. In other words, it lived up to the expectations of “Deadman’s Blues”, and even adds a few more exceptional song offerings that downright rival that song’s indelible impact.

The album starts off with two waltz beat songs, including the superbly-written “West Texas Wind” which talks about contracting rambling fever from classic old songs and living it down the rest of your life. “Snack Bar Mary and the Tin Pin Priest” shows off Matt’s storytelling side, and his ability to evoke setting in his songs. “Drinking To Forget” is more of the classic country drinking song, while another waltz, “Tiny Anchors” will creep up on you as one of the albums best tracks after seeming a little too simple during the first few listens. “Real Hard Times” is the album’s fun song, taking a up-tempo, swing approach.

I know what you’re thinking though: none of this fare sounds like something that would rival “Deadman’s Blues”. The music on With Love From Brushy Mountain is arranged strongly throughout, and some female harmony vocals really take this album to the next level as far as instrumentation and production. But what really sets Matt Woods apart—what allowed “Deadman’s Blues” to resonate so deeply—is Matt’s ability to inebriate his vocals with such authentic emotion, yet deliver them with such conviction and effortlessness. He conjures up these moments where he’s downright screaming, with the bare patches on the top of his cheeks blistering red, and his huge beard and long hair shaking frantically, stricken by the same emotion that inspired the song. It’s terrible and beautiful all at the same time, and the commiseration he can churn in the listener during these moments is virtually unparalleled.

The last three songs of this album, “Lucero Song”, “Liberty Bell”, and the “bonus” track “80 Miles An Hour” feature these definable Matt Woods moments, as well as the same heart-wrenching songwriting “Deadman’s Blues” achieved. You could even calls these songs sequels or segues to “Deadman’s”, like the memorable narrative lives on through these final tracks.

So that solves that: Matt Woods is no fluke, no one trick pony. Not even close. He’s a force of songwriting nature who can match his stories with inspired performances.

With Love From Brushy Mountain comes recommended.

Two guns up.

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Purchase With Love From Brushy Mountain From Matt Woods

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May
13

Leroy Virgil of Hellbound Glory Talks “LV” EP & More

May 13, 2014 - By Trigger  //  Reviews  //  16 Comments

hellbound10 copy

Reno’s Hellbound Glory has just released a new 5-song EP called LV, named for the initials of lead singer and songwriter Leroy Virgil. The album was recorded in and partially inspired by Leroy’s hometown of Aberdeen, Washington, and marks the first new music from Leroy and Hellbound Glory in nearly three years.

On the occasion of the new release I gave Leroy a call and spoke to him about the new EP, another EP he has coming out July 3rd called Folk Hero, and what opening for Kid Rock on an arena tour did for his career.

“It’s about a hour-and-a-half outside of Reno on the Gardnerville side, through Gardnerville, then you take 88 up into the mountains,” Leroy tells me about the place he’s living now ouside of Reno. “Just a little town, out kinda in the middle of nowhere. I’ve got a really great view. Hardly anyone lives around me. Just a really secluded little place out in the woods, which is cool by me. I’ve lived up here for about a year.

“Obviously I spend a lot of time out on the road. But my wife and I moved up here to be closer to her family. Just wanted a place where my kid could play out in the woods. The area we can afford to live in Reno was getting a little bit rough. So this was good for the family. My boy is great. He’s a big boy. He knows my music, loves music in general. He’s my biggest fan, and I’m his biggest fan too. Since he’s been born I’ve been stealing material from him.”

Tell us about this new EP you’ve got out, LV.

Last Halloween I wrote this song called “Streets of Aberdeen”. It literally took me like a half hour to put it all together. I wrote it, and later that night I posted it on the internet to share it, and as I started playing it more, I thought, “this has some potential.” I got a hold of an old friend of mine back in Aberdeen that I used to record with when I was a teenager who has a studio there. I just said, “Hey, would you be interested in hitting the studio together?” He’d been out of commission for a while, but he got it all set up. If you’ve heard the song, the storyline’s about an infamous murderer back there in Aberdeen. And the place I recorded it—and this is completely random, none of this was on purpose—but the actual studio is an old union building where Billy Gohl murdered all these people at. That just happens to be where the studio happens to be. So I wrote this song, and I kind of knew in the back of my mind that the studio was in the same place, but the song is about it, and it’s recorded right there. I don’t know, I just thought it was something kind of cool. I’d always heard the story when I was a kid and it was stuck in my brain. It makes for a good story at the very least.

hellbound-glory-lvThe EP is all tape, all analog studio, and he hadn’t been recording for about ten years or so. So it’s old tape equipment before they started using Pro Tools and stuff. There’s no computers in the whole entire office. And I went there and did a couple of songs with Adam whose playing bass for me, and Marty Chandler who plays guitar for the Supersuckers. They play on a few of the songs, and then the rest of the songs I just did by myself as kind of a one man band.

The “Streets of Aberdeen” song, I tried to get it recorded for a couple of sessions, and it just wasn’t coming together. It got to be one of the last days, and I knew Bryan [the engineer] had to head off to some dance thing for his wife. It got to about four o’clock and he had to be gone by five, so I just tuned the guitar down and started strumming something and I came up with this chord. And after a bunch of tries earlier, I found the right chord, I found the right tempo, and I recorded everything on the song in about an hour.

Tell us about your history with Aberdeen. Hellboud Glory is so synonymous with Reno, but I know that’s the area you’re from.

My mom moved to Aberdeen when I was about three. She met my step dad out there and I lived out there for the most part, with the exception of a couple months here and there when I would visit my real father who lived in Sun Valley, right outside of Reno. So I bounced back and forth between the two places quite a bit. At about 21, I decided to move out of Aberdeen because I wanted to go to Reno to become a big star (laughing). That’s a joke. Nobody moves to Reno to become a big star. But I moved to Reno to pursue music a little bit, and to get to know my dad. But yeah, I grew up in Aberdeen. I grew up on an oyster farm just outside of town, but I also spent a lot of time hanging out in the downtown area with street kids.

And Aberdeen is a strange town because I don’t know that traditionally you would call it a music town, but there’s all this musical history swirling around the area out there.

Metal Church is from out there, which actually Brian Smith who recorded this EP has some ties to. The Melvins are from out there. And of course Nirvana and Kurt Cobain are from Aberdeen as well. There’s definitely something in the water out there I’d say.

So why release a 5-song EP now instead of a full album a later? Do you consider this somewhat of a concept album because it’s so tied to this location?

There would be more songs if I had more songs that I’d recorded. I’ve got to say that LV is the first thing I’ve put out where I’m happy with every single one of the songs. The versions are definitive versions of these songs. Some of the past projects, I’d put twelve songs on it and there would be three or four songs where it was a good song, but I just wasn’t quite happy with the way it turned out, but I put it on there just because I wanted to get the song out. This was the first time I didn’t make concessions to time or anything.

I’ve got another 5-song EP in the can that I’ll be putting out July 3rd. It’s going to be called Folk Hero. It’s going to be a political album. A lot of the songs people have probably heard and there’s a couple of cover songs. It’s more electric than the stuff I have doing with the Aberdeen sessions. It’s a little bit more like what our live show is going to be like. It was recorded out in Detroit.

The “LV” of the EP is for your initials. How much is this LV EP Hellbound Glory, and how much of it is it Leroy Virgil?

I started Hellbound Glory more than ten years ago back in Reno. Hellbound Glory has always been my thing. It’s always been less of a band, and more of a gang. People come and people go, and people come back. Because I recorded this EP back in Aberdeen, and I recorded a lot of it by myself, it is a little bit more of a pure expression of just me. I really put a lot of myself onto the tape with it. Just trying to capture more where I’m from as opposed to where the band is from.

Have you thought about just going under the Leroy Virgil name?

I’ve actually considered it a lot. We’ve talked about it, but there’s so much momentum going with Hellbound Glory and I’ve got so many years of work into it. Within a week or two of moving to Reno, I’d written the song and turned it into a band name. So it’s been something I’m stuck with. Part of me would like a change. But it’s a great band name when you think about it. It’s good and evil, heaven and hell. As I’ve changed lineups, I’ve always called the band something different. For a while we were the Excavators, for a while I was calling it the Damaged Good Ol’ Boys, for a while to was the Damn Seagulls, so it’s always kind of changing up for me. I could see a day when it is called Leroy & Hellbound Glory, or whatever. I have no shortage of good band names. I want people to connect with the songs rather than the band name.

Every time I bring up Hellbound Glory, people ask me what’s going on with those Shooter Jennings sessions that you did out in Nashville. Is it coming in the future, is it sort of in limbo?

You know, I’d say it will probably be out someday. To be honest with you, I didn’t really bring it to the recording sessions. A lot of the songs I hadn’t finished yet, I don’t think. And we were just really limited on time. I’ve heard them, and Shooter did a great job, it was just I didn’t do that great of a job. We drove three days and showed up at noon and started playing. We really partied pretty hard. And you know, I don’t regret doing it because it made the songs better. But I just wasn’t too stoked about what got laid to tape. I love Shooter to death and I wish it would have worked out, but the songs weren’t done yet. There were lyrics on it that were half cooked. I didn’t sing all that great. But I’m looking forward to working with Shooter again. We’ve actually talked about getting back into this studio in Aberdeen.

How much does it concern you that you have songs out there that you’ve created, and maybe you get tired of them, or maybe you’re working on them, and that maybe they’ll get lost?

I’m not afraid of that at all. I like my songs. I’ve got five new ones that I’m polishing up right now. For me, I don’t want to force it in the studio. All of those songs I recorded with Shooter, they’re not off the table. I’m not going to put them out until I’ve got the right groove for them. I’m going to keep on trying. I’m always working on them. I’m still planning to get them out because I like them. I think they’re great songs.

What kind of impact did the Kid Rock tour have on your career?

It put me on stage in front of a bunch of people, and I learned a whole shitload just being around the guy. I don’t know. My life has completely changed since I went on that tour. People may not be able to see it. We’re not selling out big places or nothing. But I’ve got a nice new van, recording in a nice studio. I’ve got a really good booking agent. I don’t know. Every interaction I had with Kid Rock, I learned something. He didn’t make me an overnight sensation, but he definitely put me on the radar.

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May
13

Sturgill Simpson’s “Metamodern Sounds in Country Music”

May 13, 2014 - By Trigger  //  Reviews  //  127 Comments

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I hate writing reviews like this. So I’m supposed to sit here and peck out a bunch of words to convince you to buy this damn thing? … an album many people are calling a “masterpiece” and the “best album in years”? The only person’s opinion about Metamodern Sounds in Country Music that truly matters is Sturgill Simpson’s papaw—the guy that introduces this album at the beginning of the first track. And by all accounts, he’s beaming about it. And so that’s all you really need to know. If more country artists used their grandparents as barometers on quality, I could probably board this URL up and do something that actually pays.

Just go and buy this record already. I really don’t have much else else to add, except to say that all these people reciting that Sturgill is like a modern Waylon Jennings aren’t listening beyond shallow observances based on his voice. And yes, lizard aliens and LSD are loosely mentioned in first song “Turtles All The Way Down”, and maybe similar cosmic themes are touched on here and there. But I don’t feel comfortable calling Metamodern Sounds a concept album. Sturgill actually touches on a wide variety of subjects during these ten tracks. “Long White Line” is very much a traditional country traveling song, though there may be some deeper underlying themes present there. And “Pan Bowl” is a very personal account of Sturgill’s hometown. Metamodern Sounds isn’t “out there,” it’s right where it’s supposed to be.

And to all these people saying that this album is one of the best they’ve heard in years, I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with you, but I still hear much room for improvement. Then again, I’ve also seen Sturgill’s talents on full display. Even Sturgill says in the song “Life of Sin”, “And the boys and me are still working on the sound.” Sturgill is just now starting to hit is stride people, trust me. I’m half convinced half the things he does are just to screw with all of us. Once you realize that, then you really begin to unlock the true wisdom and enjoyment in his music. And before you go saying this is one of the best country records ever, understand Sturgill will likely have many more to come.

sturgill-simpson-metamodern-sounds-in-country-musicOr hopefully he will. Just five weeks ago, I got a smattering of emails from a group of attendees at a Sturgill concert that said he’d announced on stage that he was quitting music. Game over. Something about having a baby on the way and needing to “do the right thing” and contemplating moving back out West to work for the railroad again. Everyone said the show was great, but that Sturgill was moody, and left without shaking any hands. The next day Sturgill was on the radio in Kentucky for a lengthy interview, and I listened in intently, a draft of “Sturgill Simpson Quits Music” already in the works. And of course, he mentioned not a word along those lines. A couple of days later, NPR is premiering his video for “Turtles All The Way Down”, and next thing you know you can’t launch a web browser without seeing his name somewhere. Signal the all clear. Maybe it was just Sturgill’s way of getting us to not pay so much attention.

There are a few things that bother me with this album. Though the live approach of cutting the record in a few days with the band all together makes for a good feel for your recordings, I could have also seen splurging just a little bit to procure better backing vocals for the chorus in “A Little Light” and for the harmony line on the hidden track “Pan Bowl”. And here we go again with an album that has this tape hiss hampering the clarity of the recording throughout. Yes I get it, this hiss is the side effect of the “warmth” you get from a non-digital approach, and you’d rather deal with it than the alternative: a dead sound. But we’re making lots of albums that I’m afraid the future will look back on and wonder why we purposely made sound bad. There’s a balance here between analog and clarity that is being missed by some of the best albums being put out today. When Sturgill’s voice soars when he takes a chorus to his highest register, I just want to hear it without it getting corroded. Sure maybe it’s wishful thinking to even entertain this train of thought, but commercial radio will never get behind that hissey, “classic” sound.

“It Ain’t All Flowers” is the song on this album you’re going to either love or hate. Though some may think they hear turntable action and wonder if Sturgill has gone all hip-hop on us, the effects are more the result of tape playback and other audio hijinks. Not to level an accusation of predictability at Sturgill, but second albums from artists tend to include a stretching of boundaries so that they don’t become boxed into any sound that they then must be beholden to for the rest of their career. I don’t have a problem personally with “It Ain’t All Flowers”, though it does stretch out a little too long to where it begins to feel a little self-indulgent. I’ve also experienced this song live (at least I think it was this one), and it blew the doors off of the version that made it onto this recording.

Another polarizing decision for some will be the inclusion of 80′s one hit wonder When In Rome’s song “The Promise”. This is Sturgill teaching us all a lesson, and one we should heed. Every great song has a missive that resonates universally, and genres are just the clothing that make those missives more compatible to our familiarities. Sturgill and his band do more justice to this song than the original does.

sturgill-simpson-001With Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, Sturgill Simpson doesn’t just capture our ears, he captures our imaginations. However misguided the notion is, most every disenfranchised country music fan harbors the idea that at some point some true country artist is going to come along that is so good, it is going to tip the scales back in the right direction. What Metamodern Sounds does is it gives the true country music listener hope beyond the happiness the music conveys. It resolves that ever-present conflict between sticking to the traditional sound, but progressing forward.

Sturgill Simpson’s first album High Top Mountain was just establishing the baseline. He was half bored with it himself by the time it was released. I was disheartened when I heard the rumors that Sturgill Simpson might be quitting music, but I wasn’t surprised. I remember sitting in a packed church cathedral in downtown Austin in March as part of Sturgill’s official SXSW showcase. It was completely quiet during and in between songs aside for the roaring applause right after each song, and after watching Sturgill play the first half dozen songs of the set, I truly wondered to myself, “Do I even like country music?” I don’t know for sure, but I have a feeling Sturgill Simpson was wondering the same thing. Then he started to play some of the songs from Metamodern Sounds, and the answer became emphatically, “Yes!”

We’re just going to have to accept that Sturgill Simpson is a weird one: moody, dark, yet slowly trending toward some version of eternal optimism and happiness even the most cheerful and balanced among us will likely never achieve. “A picture’s worth 1,000 words, but a word ain’t worth a dime,” is what Sturgill says in one of the best-written songs on the album called “Voices”, and I can’t help but feel the barb of that song is pointed at people like me that start of by telling you they have nothing to say, and eight paragraphs later, still don’t feel like they’ve given you a proper summation of their thoughts.

It’s not time yet to be making comparisons to Red Headed Stranger, or even to Phases & Stages. These are things only time and history can decide. Yet Metamodern Sounds in Country Music hasn’t even been out for a full day, and it has already reached that critical mass state any independent release can, where no matter where you turn, you find people singing its praises. Where does Metamodern Sounds, Sturgill Simpson, and country music go from here? We’ll have to see. But right now, right at this very moment, not some famous son, not some Americana artist you have to squint at to construe as country, but Sturgill Simpson, and Sturgill Simpson alone, defines the pinnacle, and what is relevant in the here and now of independent country music.  And he’s done it from the sheer strength of this album.

Two guns up.

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May
10

Review – Willie Watson’s “Folk Singer Vol. 1″

May 10, 2014 - By Trigger  //  Reviews  //  23 Comments

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On paper, nothing about this album should work. You can’t take one guy, and one guy only, no overdubs or band, just acoustic instruments and a cued mic and call it good. Not to mention that this is an album entirely consisting of covers and traditionals. So yeah, this isn’t Billy Bragg or Charlie Parr. I’m sorry, but that’s just not enough to hold the listener’s ear for an entire album. Or is it?

The key here is that one guy, and that one guy only is the one and only Willie Watson. One of the founding members of Old Crow Medicine Show who left the formidable throwback outfit back in 2011, Willie Watson has re-emerged with a new album and a very, very old approach to country and folk music.

Old Crow has always done very well to make sure they portray themselves as just a gaggle of guys with no real frontman or formalized positions in the band. Nonetheless, fellow founders Ketch Secor and Critter Fuqua, and maybe to an extent the later edition, Gill Landry, have always been the outfit’s most out-front members. Willie Watson was always the guy that blended best in the background, and that’s not meant as an insult, but more of an illustration of his somewhat selfless, straightforward, no nonsense approach to music. As Old Crow would descend into silliness all around him, with a strong jaw and sense of purpose, Willie would be the rock holding the entire thing together, holding steady on the acoustic guitar, acting as the guidepost for the band’s tempo and harmonies. And then when it was his turn to lead a song, it would be the more sensible traditional that kept the group grounded in its original, founding spirit.

So here he is now striking out by himself, somewhat uncharacteristic, but at the same time holding uncompromisingly to what he is as a musician. To become a solo artist, Willie Watson didn’t decide to create a more sensible approach, or learn how to be more personable and well-rounded as an entertainer. Instead he drew even further inward, took what he did and boiled it down even further to the kernel of his creative genius where he’s channeling with almost ghostly authenticity the very folk singers, country troubadours, and blues men he seeks to resurrect through his music. Stern faced and focused, he comes out and sings with such a fierceness, dedication and heart to the emotions and humanity behind the stories he’s singing about, I’ll be damned if Willie Watson doesn’t come across more like Woody Guthrie than Woody Guthrie.

willie-watson-folk-singer-vol-1Then you take the songs he’s chosen. The name of this album is Folk Singer Vol. 1 for crying out loud, and it starts off with the well-familiar “Midnight Special”. Everything about Willie Watson’s approach is so dry, you expect it to fall flat on its face as a form of entertainment. But that’s what’s so cool about it—it’s counter-intuitiveness that is also exactly what you would expect from Willie Watson solo, only even more so. There’s such a dedication that is behind this approach he’s chosen that it steals your attention and conveys an intimacy that alludes most music.

And though all of these songs have been heard by the world before, Willie Watson takes the old folk singer approach of making each composition his own by changing up the words while keeping the root composition the same. This isn’t Willie Watson contemporizing or re-writing these songs. This is Willie taking the orthodox, traditional approach of the folk singer to take what his predecessors have done and add his own spin. This is how many of these songs were formed in the first place, and Watson just carries forward that heritage. So even though this is a new album of old songs, there’s a good measure of originality gracing this project.

Willie Watson can downright mesmerize, and he shouldn’t be discounted as a singer and performer just because there’s nothing flashy to his craft. On the song “Mexican Cowboy”, he evokes some singing moments that many pop singers wish they could re-create, while the guile and sense of character illustrated in “Keep It Clean” is spellbinding.

Folk Singer Vol. 1 was produced by David Rawlings, known for his work with Old Crow Medicine Show early on, as well as Gillian Welch and his own solo stuff, but I’m not sure what his useful purpose was for this record aside from staying the hell out of Willie Watson’s way. And refreshingly, Willie and Rawlings didn’t decide to try and get all retro in the recording process and make a foggy album by using antiquated gear. It’s a classic sound, but clear and present. The cover choice of this album is very debatable though. The image of Willie Watson with his steel jaw and wide-brimmed hat is so powerful to the conveyance of his songs, it’s a shame that they showed him here missing his lid and smoking a pipe that doesn’t seem to even fit in the same mood, in sunglasses, and setting a capo on his guitar.

Simply the limitation of how many people’s attention can be held by one person playing old songs makes Folk Singer Vol. 1 hard to recommend vehemently to the wide public. But beyond the limiting approach, it’s hard to find fault or flaw in Willie’s invocation of classics from America’s songbook.

1 3/4 of 2 guns up.

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May
8

Album Review – Nikki Lane’s “All Or Nothin’”

May 8, 2014 - By Trigger  //  Reviews  //  20 Comments

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What do the little girls do that grow up as distant strangers to their own time? Like homesick aliens they gather around artifacts of the past to attempt to cling to something familiar; mementos of a world gone by from which to draw some sanity to face the mad, mad modern world they’re immersed in. Greenville, South Carolina native Nikki Lane is one of these such refugees who made her way to Nashville, TN to try and find some kindred folks who felt more familiar living in the past. She took to foraging for vintage clothing artifacts throughout the city—castoffs from a world modernizing to fast for its own good—and assembling them in a little stall in a vintage store in East Nashville she calls High Class Hillbilly. It was there that by happenstance she bumped into a gentleman by the name of Dan Auerbach—famous for many things, but mostly as one half of the rock duo The Black Keys. Next thing you know, a plan is hatched, and an album called All or Nothin’ is being offered to the world for its listening edification.

Nikki Lane’s sound has always been somewhat hard to define. Her first album, 2011′s Walk of Shame was a rocking little number, just as much B-52′s as Buck Owens, and was country in the same way Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made For Walking” is, with a dollish, throwback saunter to her style. Nikki traveled around with another female singer for a while, and made quite a bit of noise in the independent music realm, even if nobody really knew exactly what to call it. Ahead of this new release, Rolling Stone decided to strike out on a limb and proclaim her an “Outlaw Country Singer” right there in the title of the damn piece. That seems like a lot to live up to for a little lady from Greenville, and not a little to quantify seeing how that “Outlaw” term has been so ballyhooed and bastardized by anybody and everybody recently. Lane’s self-analysis seemed a little more sedated and on point when she told Paste recently,

Country, it’s presented as real people singing real songs to real people. It’s not. There’s literally like 30 people behind every decision that’s made in that entire industry. The thing I love about this alt country, or Americana, whatever this world is that me and all my buddies have gotten lumped into, it’s a bunch of characters writing songs. Just as Gary Briggs from New West says, we’re ‘living’ our songs. We wrote them about real shit that happened to us. No hypotheticals.

nikki-lane-all-or-nothinSo there you go. That’s the spirit with which you should approach All or Nothin’, because that’s the spirit Nikki Lane approached it with: lay it all on the line and tell some true stories. And getting the truth out of Nikki Lane isn’t something that needs to be coaxed. Whether it’s the surprising, if not shocking honesty of sinful behavior coming from a female voice evidenced in the songs “Right Time” and “Sleep With A Stranger”, or the vulnerability presented in “Good Man” or “Out Of My Mind”, you don’t have to squint to see that these songs are the truth through Nikki Lane’s eyes.

Nikki and Dan Auerbach made the decision to go the “all or nothin’” route with recording this album using vintage gear, and this imbibes All or Nothin’ with that classic, far away, and in places, fuzzy feel. More and more we’re seeing this album-wide technique pop up, especially from big name producers like Auerbach, T Bone Burnett, and Jack White, but it begs the question of whether a more balanced approach—one that finds the sweet spot of striking a warm, vintage feel, but one that doesn’t carry such a filmy layer that’s placed between the music and the listener—would be a better fit. On All or Nothin’, both that vintage feel, and that filmy layer are certainly present, the latter more prevalent in some places than others, like the last song “Want My Heart Back” where Nikki’s voice is just so hard to hear the approach arguably hurts more than helps.

Nikki Lane’s songwriting is where the strength of her music lies. She’s flattered by the gift of a grand perspective in how to tell stories about human struggles in an engaging way, and match them up with melodies that are appropriate, rich, and addictive. Add on top of that country elements like steel guitar, along with some classic pop elements like organ, and you have a blend of influences brought to what at the heart are mostly rock & roll songs. Though Lane will veer off that path in places, like the title track, which is very much a Motown soul song the way it is arranged, or “Loves On Fire”, a duet with Dan Auerbach, which is very much a country song, so much so one may say the verse structure is somewhat recycled from the old bluegrass tune “Rocky Top”.

nikki-lane-sxsw-2014Her voice however is where you’ll either fall in love with Nikki Lane and this album, or find the magic elusive. Her natural Carolina, Southern dollish tone makes up for a somewhat limited range and power, and a subtle smokiness to the edges of her tone makes it that much more alluring. Depending on the setting, Lane’s singing can strike at your empathetic nature, like in the emptiness at the beginning of “You Can’t Talk To Me Like That” where it steals your heart, or in another very country tune “Out Of My Mind” where when the music falls out, her voice feels somewhat naked, even forced.

Most notably about All or Nothin’, Nikki Lane and Dan Auerbach team up to make some very strong independent music “hits” for lack of better terminology. “Right Time” and “I Don’t Care” are definitely those wide-ranging songs that could end up having the world humming after hearing them in a clothing commercial, without selling out their independent, authentic spirit.

Nikki Lane isn’t like many of the young, confident, defiant women of the female roots world. You get the sense she’s more of a beautiful train wreck—seesawing from one debilitating set of emotions to another, but always doing her best to translate and capture those emotions in songs to share with the rest of the world in a way that makes us both sympathize and share in those experiences, embellishing the rich textures of being alive.

1 3/4 of 2 guns up.

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